MARSHALL, Texas (8/30/11) – East Texas Baptist University sophomore catcher Cayden Cunniff wanted to stay busy this summer and wasn’t necessarily looking forward to leaving the quiet, peaceful, Christian-based atmosphere at ETBU. Ideally, he wanted to stay busy with something that would both benefit his baseball career and his spiritual life, and going home for the summer wasn’t exactly what he felt like doing.
That restlessness, along with an early-season suggestion by Tigers head coach Sam Blackmon, led Cunniff to a season with the Alfred Thunder, in upstate New York, as part of Athletes in Action’s summer baseball league. Now that he’s back at ETBU, Cunniff definitely feels the experience was exactly what he was looking for.
“I was kind of praying…I struggle a little more at home, and it’s easier here to do the right things with a Christian environment,” said Cunniff, a native of Joshua, Texas. “I was kind of worried about the summer. Even though I was kind of wanting to go home I knew that sometimes for me I struggle with some influences there so a couple of weeks after I started praying about that I got this opportunity.”
Blackmon has encouraged other Tigers to pursue summer ball with Athletes in Action, including one of Cunniff’s senior teammates last season, Ryan Yezak. He felt that Cunniff would be a great fit and that the experience would benefit his two-year catcher both on and off the field.
“I believe Athletes in Action helps develop players with Christian leadership skills,” Blackmon said. “For Cayden and for our program I felt that Cayden being involved in that setting this summer would only enhance that in him as a leader. A few weeks into it, we visited and you could just tell the difference in his confidence level not only from playing but from the confidence level of being a Christian leader. I can already tell the difference from him being away this summer.”
The baseball part of the experience, at least at the start, was intimidating. Although Blackmon had stressed to Cunniff that his baseball skills would work fine with Athletes in Action, Cunniff had to prove it to himself.
“I was a little intimidated at first, when I first got there,” he said. “At training camp everyone seemed like they were a foot taller than me. It was good competition but I saw that it wasn’t really overpowering. I definitely had to be at the top of my game to compete but I liked the challenge and knew it was going to make me a better player.”
Cunniff was one of two catchers on the Thunder roster, and he and Matt O’Neill, of Avernia University, split time throughout most of the season. When O’Neill sustained an injury late in the summer, however, Cunniff became the full-time catcher the rest of the way.
“Overall I was pleased with the way I played and I got the chance to catch a lot of innings,” he said. “I’ve just always wanted to catch, I enjoy the defensive part of it a lot and to me as a defensive catcher it’s all about keeping mistakes to a minimum. I practice blocking and stuff every day and my goal is to just get better at everything, and playing this summer allowed me to do that against good competition.”
What makes Athletes in Action a little different than other summer collegiate organizations is the off-the-field spiritual emphasis. Cunniff said the Thunder took part in daily devotional sessions and also had some mission-type activities, such as playing a softball game against a group of prisoners at a state prison. During this experience he said the players were able to share the Gospel with inmates.
“It was a really cool experience, and since I’m a Criminal Justice major it just kind of fit for me,” Cunniff said. “Having that opportunity to share the Gospel with people in need was a cool thing.”
Cunniff has already been invited back to play in the league, and he is looking forward to the opportunity. Blackmon, from a coaching standpoint, can already see the growth and maturity in his young catcher.
“Cayden has had an impact on our program since he arrived as a freshman,” he said. “It has been a pleasure to watch him mature into not only a great baseball player, but also a strong Christian leader as well. He is very dedicated to his academic studies and the weight room. He brings everyone that is around him to a higher level.”