Tonganoxie (9-0), led by head coach Al Troyer, has been one of the breakout football teams across the state of Kansas this year. A big reason for that has been the play of running back Cooper Cunningham.
Cunningham, a 5-foot-10, 185-pound, senior, has rushed for over 1,800 yards this season with 24 total touchdowns for the 4A Chieftains. He has averaged over nine yards per carry in 2019. It may also come to the surprise of some as he had just 167 total yards as a junior in 2018 and 104 total yards as a sophomore in 2017.
It’s not just Cunningham either as Tongie is quite loaded in 2019 with the return of eight offensive starters and seven defensive starters from a 7-3 campaign in 2018.
Cunningham has used a veteran offensive line unit that features one of the best in Kansas in Cole Sample, also one of the nations top throwers in track and field. The Chieftains average 282 yards rushing per game while throwing for 173.7 yards per game. Blake Poje has also had a breakout junior season in throwing for over 1,500 yards this season with 17 touchdowns to just six interceptions. Elijah Tyner and Dallas Bond have been the favorite targets for Poje with 572 yards and 603 yards receiving each. Conner Searcy has also been huge as a blocker on this team with 27 pancakes, only second to Sample’s 30. Searcy has 76 stops to lead the defense.
Cunningham is also an all-league baseball player and was an honorable mention all-state pick a season ago as a pitcher. In addition to his success on the field, he also gets it done in the classroom with a perfect 4.0 GPA. Cunningham is a member of the National Honor Society at Tonganoxie High School where his favorite subject is history.
“I strive to be the hardest worker in the room or the field. A lot of people don’t know that my success is driven off of the idea that people around me are trying to get better than I am. I push myself everyday that I know that I gave it everyday to be the best version of myself.” Cunningham said.
Cunningham feels like this Tongie group has a shot to make a run into the playoffs as well with the veteran group they have on the field.
“We definitely have a shot to make a run because of the guys we returned this year. Another reason that we have a shot is our program is different from others. We don’t have big numbers but the guys we do have are fully committed to being a part of this team.” Cunningham said.
The next step in that run is a playoff game this Friday against Spring Hill (5-4). The Chieftains beat Spring Hill, a league opponent, earlier this season, 41-0. We caught up with one of the top breakout players in Kansas below in the latest Q&A edition of Faces in Kansas.
Q&A w/ Cunningham
How did you get involved in football?
I got involved in football from the very beginning of my childhood. My dad played football when he was in school and he coached me throughout little league and I have loved it ever since.
What are your goals this season?
My main goal for this season is to go undefeated and have a record of at least 10-0 because no football team in Tonganoxie history has won 10 games. Another goal of mine is to win the state championship because ultimately, that is what we are playing for.
Do you guys have a shot to make a run this year?
We definitely have a shot to make a run because we are returning over half of our starters for both offense and defense. Another reason that we have a shot to make a run is because our program is a lot different from others around our town. We don’t have very big numbers but the guys we have on our team are committed to being part of this team and family and they put the team first.
What makes you such a force as a player?
What makes me such a force as a player is that I know and understand the game from multiple positions. I know where I should be as well as my teammates too. I also have very good vision at running back and the ability to read blocks and make good cuts when I need to. At free safety I can fill a hole or guard in open field. My strength and speed also help me a lot being able to break through tackles on the offensive side and make tackles on the defensive side.
What’s the atmosphere like to play football on Friday night for your school and town?
The atmosphere for my school and town on Friday night is very special. Everyone talks about the football team in Tonganoxie and our classmates love to come out and support along with parents and even other people that don’t have a connection to the team. A smaller community like Tonganoxie is brought together by the high school sports and especially football.
For anyone that hasn’t seen one of your games, why come to one?
For the people who have not been to one of my games, you should definitely come because personally I won’t ever stop trying my hardest until the game is finished and I will always keep myself in the game mentally. I also strive to get better and better each game so there is always a chance for me and my teammates to help me have a successful game.
Who are other key players on your team?
My whole team is honestly the key to us having success because there isn’t one person out there that doesn’t help make us be successful but some of my teammates that are key players are: Connor Searcy (Senior LB and TE), Cole Sample (Senior Nose Guard and LT), Sam Kleidosty (Sophomore Rover and Slot), Elijah Tyner (Senior Wide out and Corner), Dallas Bond (Junior DE and Wide out), Blake Poje (Junior QB and Corner), and Heston Robbins (Junior Strong Safety and Wide out).
Favorite thing about football?
My favorite thing about football is the family that it creates. Each of my teammates are my brothers and we grow closer and closer every day. All of our blood, sweat, and tears go together and make us into one unit and unlike other sports, every single person on the team from freshman to senior has a part in making the team be successful.
Do you play any other sports, tell us about that, what other positions do you play?
I play baseball and I have played basketball all the way through junior year but I will be doing powerlifting during my senior winter season instead of basketball so that I can get bigger and stronger to have a better chance at the next level. In baseball I am a pitcher/utility player.
What is it like to play for your coach?
To play for my coach you have to know that it is much more than just football on this team. We have core covenants and a certain word for each week of the season that makes the team realize how to be successful at the game of football and at life and I love that about this program. We strive to be the best men and players we can be so that when we get into real life we can be the husband and father that our family will deserve to have.
What did you and the team do in the off-season to become better?
My team and I worked all summer long in the weight room to get bigger, faster, and stronger than the teams around us. We knew that our team won’t just be successful by walking out and being the most athletic team out there so we pushed ourselves every day to become the best players we could be. We lift weights, practice, and watch film all the time so that we know what we have to do to make ourselves be successful. Our motto is AAAO and that stands for Anyone, Anywhere, Anytime, Bar None and we use that to push ourselves and to not be afraid of any opponent that we face.
What interest are you seeing at the next level and what are your plans?
I am undecided on where I will attend but I want to further either my football or baseball career in college.
Favorite thing to do when you aren’t playing sports?
My favorite thing to do when I am not playing sports is just being able to spend time with family and friends and having a good time. Sports are a main part of my life so when I have a break from them I try to enjoy the people that I don’t get to be around as much.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
In ten years I see myself having a job and possibly a family while hopefully still continuing my athletic career and having a happy life. I see myself as the same type of person that I am right now where I continue to push myself every day.
Favorite subject in school, what type of student are you, GPA?
My favorite subject in school is history and I have a 4.0 GPA that I have had throughout all of my years of school. I am also part of the National Honors Society.
Who is your role model?
I don’t have just one role model but I have two. My mom and my dad are the biggest role models in my life because they show me how I should live my life. They show me how to sacrifice my wants and needs for the benefit of other people around me.
Best place to eat in your town or the surrounding area?
The best place to eat in Tonganoxie is the Mexican Restaurant, Jalapeños.
One thing the average person wouldn’t know about you?
One thing the average person wouldn’t know about me is that I strive every day to be the hardest worker in the room. A lot of people don’t know that my success is driven off of the idea that people around me are trying to get better than I am. I push myself everyday so that when the day comes where I hang up my jersey for the last time, I’ll know that I gave it everything I had to become the best version of myself.