"Since I'm pretty young as a junior, I've never really been that confident on the mound before," Cunningham said, his reddish brown hair peeking from behind his cap. "But, I just talked to my coach [Joe Falcone] and, if I could just settle down in the first couple innings, throw strikes and just get into a rhythm, I thought I could be pretty successful."
So, what does an ace starter act like? Who knows, but Cunningham is just going to be himself.
"I'm pretty laid-back," he said. "I'm kind of a goofy guy, except when I'm on the mound. Then, I'm pretty serious. But I'm usually the guy who jokes around in the dugout or on the bus rides over. Just trying to be as much of a leader as I can and do what I can on the mound and at the plate. Hopefully everything else takes care of itself."
On a gorgeous day for baseball, all went according to plan early under a beautifully blue and cloudless canopy.
The Hawks (1-4) put up a three-spot in the first after senior leftfielder Chase Standen doubled home Jawan McCallister and Alex Stewart, who singled and walked respectively. Standen later scored after one of Cunningham's two doubles. His second double put the Hawks up 5-0 in the top of the third.
"When I was younger, I was always a better hitter than a pitcher," said Cunningham, who played youth ball in Newtown. "I never really liked to pitch that much. I threw hard, so they just threw me out there."
The Hawks' No. 2 pitcher last season, Cunningham, a junior righthander, looked like a No. 1 with back-to-back 1-2-3 innings to start the game with a third just one out away until trouble came in the Judge third.
With two strikes, Nick Listner slapped a single down the rightfield line, becoming the Crusaders' first baserunner. The senior later scored on a wild pitch after Cunningham loaded the bases with consecutive four-pitch walks.
"When I feel like I'm in a rhythm, I'm controlling the count and not letting [hitters] do anything to me," Cunningham said. "When I'm not, I'm feeling like the pressure is on me and I have to make the pitches instead of making [them] hit the ball."
More two-out problems came in the fourth when sophomore shortstop Dan Hammer hit a solo home run, which was followed by another four-pitch walk. He struck out six and walked five on the day.
"I have to give it to him," Cunningham said, "he got his hands in there pretty quickly, but I didn't know if that was going out or not. It just kept going. I thought it was just a moonshot, but it was a nice hit.
"Sometimes you just have to step off the mound, call the catcher over and settle down a little bit," he continued. "I was leaving them up a little bit."
The Prep offense helped, notching runs in every inning except the fourth. And the Hawks needed all the insurance they could get.
Stewart tripled and walked twice. McCallister singled, scored twice and swiped four bases. Junior Andrew Magiera also tripled. Cunningham exited the game with a 9-2 lead after 84 pitches through the fifth.
For Judge (0-2), John Forsythe hit a pinch-hit, two-run single, which drew the Crusaders within four at 9-5, in the sixth after a bases-loaded walk by Magiera gave the Crusaders hope.
Magiera eventually escaped and tripled home Tyler Clark for a final insurance run in the seventh. Clark, a junior, finished the game on the mound to the chewed cuticles of Prep fans after a hit batsman with the bases loaded added another run.
As for Cunningham, who bats lefty but throws righty, he's still developing into a No. 1 guy in the rotation.
He also swings a golf club lefty, but putts righty. And he certainly knows his limitations.
"I'm terrible," he laughed. "My brothers and my dad love to go golfing, but I just slice the ball in the woods every time. I cost more money than I'm worth in golf."
Self-deprecating humor, the laid-back ace knows it well. And he can also take a joke. Just make sure it's a good one.
"Everyone always tries to get those ginger jokes on me but I've heard every single one," he said. "The one that's the dumbest is when they say, 'Hey, carrot top.' But carrot tops are green! The top of it is green, so that doesn't make any sense to me. I just say, 'Oh, yeah, that's a pretty good one. Never heard that one before.'
"It's not affecting me with the ladies in any way. I'm pretty good on that."
On Twitter: @AceCarterDN