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It adds up: Senior a tremendous talent

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Columbus North's Kelsey Cunningham puts up a shot earlier this season. FILE PHOTO
Columbus North's Kelsey Cunningham puts up a shot earlier this season. FILE PHOTO

As senior guard Kelsey Cunningham’s basketball career at Columbus North comes winding to a close, it isn’t likely that a game will be stopped and she will be presented with a ball.

Unlike her teammates, junior Ali Patberg and senior Tayler Goodall, the 5-foot-9 Cunningham is not going to reach that special milestone of 1,000 points for her career. Both Patberg and Goodall were honored earlier this season with a brief stoppage when they hit the magic number.

At 527 career points going into Wednesday night’s game against Franklin, Cunningham won’t be ranked among her school’s all-time leading scorers. Her career 264 rebounds might not be that impressive in itself, but then throw in 179 assists, 180 steals and 28 blocks. Add up all those numbers, and they come to an amazing 80.

What kind of math is that?

That’s North’s number of victories the girls basketball team has posted since Cunningham started playing as a freshman.

When all is said and done, Cunningham will be known as one of the elite athletes to lace them up at North.

“People ask you how many points you scored,” Cunningham said after a practice this week. “I don’t focus on points. I think about the state tournament.”

North was second in the state during Cunningham’s sophomore season and was derailed in the regional last season by eventual state champion Bedford North Lawrence. Cunningham, who has signed to play basketball at Wisconsin-Milwaukee, has one final shot at a state championship.

“It’s unreal I’m a senior,” she said. “It’s just great watching everyone grow in different ways. We all have things we are better at doing. We have such great shooters on this team that I don’t need to be shooting.”

While Cunningham might not pull down as many individual honors as others on her team, she knows she is appreciated.

“In another setting, she might get more credit,” said her coach, Pat McKee. “But she understands that I understand how important she is. She does a lot of small things to put us in position to excel. She’s a terrific player.”

McKee knew Cunningham would be special when she was a freshman.

“In the sectional, she would have been our seventh or eighth player at the time,” McKee said. “She already was a solid contributor and she had a steady, all-around game.

“But against Bloomington North in that first sectional game (a 56-45 victory), we were up by two or three at the end of the game when she took one of those ‘Oh no!’ shots. She stuck a 3-pointer with the game on the line and it was a dagger. You could see that she was going to rise to another level.”

The next season the Bull Dogs came up one win short of a state title.

“As a sophomore playing point guard, I had great players around me who brought out the talent in me,” she said.

The feeling is mutual.

“I have loved playing basketball with her,” Patberg said. “She is a great team player and she always has been. She doesn’t have to score 20 points in a game, she knows that. But she has one of the biggest roles of anyone on our team.”

Patberg, Goodall and Cunningham have played on many of the same basketball teams since they were in elementary school.

When Cunningham was an elementary school player, she could light up the scoreboard with the best of them.

“Kelsey always has been a great athlete with quick hands,” said Ron Patberg, a North assistant who also coached Cunningham in youth leagues. “I started coaching her in the third or fourth grade and at Foundation For Youth, she definitely was a high scorer. That’s because she would get a lot of steals and would get layups.

“Tayler and Ali get off more shots now and Kelsey has accepted her role. She does a little of everything.”

That’s not to say Cunningham can’t fill it up when needed. She scored a season-high 18 points against Perry Meridian on Jan. 11.

“It’s nice every once in a while,” she said with a smile. “But I focus on defense.”

On offense, she splits time at the point with Patberg and plays off-guard when she isn’t playing the point. McKee said her versatility will make her a valuable college player.

“In the long term she will get better and better,” McKee said. “She has raw athletic ability.”

That ability was recognized by Wisconsin-Milwaukee head coach Kyle Rechlicz, who once played AAU ball for McKee.

“She is an incredible defender,” Rechlicz said of Cunningham when she signed her letter of intent. “She can put the ball on the floor and she knows how to get to the rim.

“She also is one of the most humble high school students I have met. Her mentality is going to make an immediate impact on our program.”

Cunningham, who wants to be a nurse, has a lot on her plate so she tries not to think too much about her future role at Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

“I do think about how I will fit in,” she said. “It is scary, but exciting, too.”

Her brand of basketball has been exciting for North fans for the past four years and it’s hard to believe her senior season almost is done.

“Actually, I have been thinking about that a lot,” Patberg said of the fact that Cunningham and Goodall will be finished soon.

“It’s hard to take everything in because we’ve been so busy. I am just trying to enjoy the moment.”

Most of Cunningham’s moments are filled with basketball. Although a senior year often becomes a long celebration for many students, Cunningham has to concentrate on her next game and eventually preparing herself for her college basketball career.

“I don’t feel I am missing anything else,” she said. “Basketball is where I belong.”

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