Four years ago, Chelsey Cunningham was the backup pitcher for Wake Forest softball’s team. Most of her offerings back then came from the dugout.
Today, Cunningham has become a Cougars leader, approaching batters and games with confidence. Her role has expanded in the past few seasons.
“When I was a freshman ... I focused a lot on cheering everyone on from the dugout. I occasionally got to DH, so I tried to pick everyone up from there,” said Cunningham, who now bats cleanup. “Now, I’m playing in every game, so I have to work on keeping people on the field and the people in the dugout up when I go back and forth. I have to focus on everyone.”
Every time she fanned a batter and after every out in Wake Forest’s third-round victory over Wilmington Hoggard on Wednesday, that’s just what the Cougars ace did.
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Wake Forest defeated the visiting Vikings, 6-1, with the help of Cunningham’s change-up. One of the five hits she allowed was a first-inning solo home run, so she went behind the dugout to adjust what became a very crafty and formidable pitch.
She collected seven strikeouts and the win, and coach Brittany Owens thinks her pitching will be just as strong in the next N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A playoff round. The Cougars travel to play No. 2 seed Greenville Conley on Friday.
“She’s been phenomenal the last two games, and I see it sticking around,” Owens said of Cunningham, who was a freshman when Wake Forest went to the finals in 2013. “I can’t even begin to explain how proud I am of her. She’s had a few games early in the season where things just ... didn’t go her way. The first inning (against Hoggard), she came in and she’s like, ‘He’s giving her the outside pitch.’ She flipped it quick.”
Cunningham threw out three runners, including Hoggard’s leadoff Olivia Hawkins in the fifth inning. She followed that up with consecutive strikeouts, fanning Nia Green looking with her daunting change-up. Green hit the homer in the first inning, and Cunningham struck her out twice afterward.
We talked a lot about the change-up. The biggest adjustment we discussed was the outside pitch. She went outside a lot, and I think she did a great job flipping that.
Wake Forest coach Brittany Owens
Though she gave up Hoggard’s lone run to open the game, Cunningham only needed nine pitches in the second inning.
“It made a big difference because in the first inning, they hit the ball well,” said Cunningham, who threw 121 pitches against Hoggard. “You have to keep them off balance, and the change-up does that.”
In addition to moving up to starting pitcher, Cunningham also contributes at the plate. Her sacrifice in the fifth inning, where Wake Forest created separation, allowed No. 2 Rebecca Perry to score. Jessica Barbour followed Cunningham with a two-run homer to provide the final margin.
Owens said she’s tried to keep the ends of recent practices light and playful since there are several seniors.
“It means a lot,” Cunningham said about advancing to the fourth round. “My freshman year, we went all the way to states, and that would be just great to do it again my senior year. Each round we go, we further the season. We’re lucky we’re playing.”
Jessika Morgan: 919-829-4538, @JessikaMorgan