Using shamrocks and green Skittle candies to keep long-standing and much-loved traditions alive, the Minisink Valley School District officially named the high school’s varsity soccer field as “The Coach Sean T. Cunningham Soccer Pitch” at an Aug 22 ceremony.
Students, alumni, district officials and community members and Coach Cunningham’s family and friends listened to heartfelt comments and watched as his soccer program rituals were explained and executed as he’d always done. That led up to the revealing of his name — along with shamrocks — on the soccer field’s scoreboard.
A role model’s ‘role model’
“The naming of any building or field at Minisink Valley is a true rarity,” said Superintendent Brian Monahan. “It really, really is. To do this for Coach Cunningham is truly something all of us here are honored and proud to do. We are recognizing a man who epitomizes what it means to be a teacher, leader, mentor, coach and all of the important roles that help positively shape the character of our students.”
Superintendent Monahan called Coach Cunningham a role model’s “role model.”
“And one of Coach Cunningham’s best gifts to this district is that he’s helped shape the future role models we need,” he added. “And we are very grateful.”
Board of Education Vice President William Cooper agreed, telling the crowd the district was beyond fortunate to have a man of such caliber to guide students. The lessons he was committed to sharing to students made this community a better place, he added, and the Board of Education knew naming the soccer pitch after him was a fitting tribute.
Alumnus Erin Natalizio said Coach Cunningham’s persona was so much more than soccer.
“He taught us life lessons that we were able to carry over into college, the workforce, and within our homes with our loved ones,” she explained. “He taught us, in order to be a great player, you need to be a great teammate: supporting, encouraging, and loving those around you. You can celebrate your team’s success, but you also need to share in responsibilities when difficulties arise.”
She added: “He taught us that nothing comes easy. If it were easy, everyone would do it. Hard work, accountability, and commitment are the driving forces behind the successes within your journey. He preached that you would always rise better together and your willingness to grow not only as a player, but as a person, would inspire and push one another through challenges and beyond perceived limitations.”
‘Girls in green’
Student Malak Samdaoui said the day’s celebration was one Coach Cunningham would have loved.
“‘C’ was always so proud of his girls and we — no matter what— could always come together in a time of need or just to be together,” she said. “On behalf of his ‘girls in green’, we would like to thank Minisink for not only realizing how much he has influenced this school, but also the students that have come and gone from it to. Today is a celebration of his life, not a mourning.”
Added Team Captain Lily Rodriguez: “The dedication of this soccer pitch in Coach C’s honor will help ensure that his legacy lives on. The beautiful game, has not been without Coach C in decades.”
Athletic Director Tim Bult said Coach Cunningham coached over 1,000 Minisink Valley student-athletes in the sports of soccer, basketball and track & field for 34 years. More impressively, his teaching impacted close to 10,000 students who traveled through the gymnasiums over the years.
“Sean Cunningham is the greatest example of a coach who, as Malak just mentioned, always made sure every athlete knew of their importance to the program, both as an athlete and also as a person of value,” he said. “One of the many ways I was welcomed to Minisink Valley 11 years ago was with his world-famous corned beef sandwich. That continued every year and I can tell you of at least one colleague who moved on from Minisink a few years ago to work at another district and Sean traveled across Orange County every March to hand deliver his sandwich. Once you were part of his family, you were always part of the family.”
Daughter Erinn Cunningham Braun thanked everyone for the honor bestowed on her father, reading “It is a Team Effort,” a document he wrote and she found on his computer. It reminds people to give their total effort to anything they do from the beginning to its end. Concurrently, they should also not let themselves or their team members down, because everything they do is a team effort.
She reminded everyone that message of her father’s document was a great life lesson for success and achievement and can be applied to anything they do.
Specifically to his former student athletes, she added: “Don’t ever let them steal your shine. Shine on ladies, he’s watching.”
Shamrocks and Skittles
During the ceremony, Varsity Soccer Coach Theresa Uhelsky explained Coach Cunningham’s important traditions of always spray painting a green shamrock at the centerfield and by the scoreboard at the beginning of the season.
“The three leaves of a shamrock are said to stand for faith, hope, and love, which symbolizes the adoration and devotion Coach C had for his ‘girls in green,’” she said.
Coach Cunningham also threw green Skittle candies onto the field.
“Those of you who really knew Coach C know that green Skittles are the only Skittles that not only make it to the field, but make it out of the bag,” added Coach Uhelsky. “It has been determined by the many open half-filled bags of Skittles found lying around that the green ones were the only ones he cared about.”
Two signs were unveiled during the ceremony: A small sign by the players’ entrance and large sign on the scoreboard.
Additionally, Team Captain Lily Rodriguez presented, on behalf of the Girls Soccer Program, Coach C’s daughter Erinn Cunningham Braun with the first official Minisink Girls Varsity Soccer warm-up shirt.
“The shirt showcases a shamrock with a ‘C’ as the stem,” Coach Uhelsky said. “This logo will honor and represent our beloved coach, mentor, colleague, and friend who will live on in our hearts forever.”
Irish music filled the air during the afternoon ceremony, along the University of Notre Dame’s “Victory March,” which Coach Cunningham played before each game.
Retired music teacher Jeanne MacDonald sang the National Anthem and concluded the ceremony with her rendition of “The Irish Blessing.”
The community’s love was shown throughout the ceremony, including food and drink donations provided by Dave LeBlanc, modified girls soccer coach and owner of Dave’s Devildogs BBQ food truck, Cuginos and green-themed treats baked by the girls soccer program.
A 50-year legacy
Coach Cunningham, who passed away in early March, began his teaching career at Minisink Valley in 1973 as a physical education teacher at the old Otisville School. His coaching credentials include the junior varsity and modified girls basketball teams; boys and girls modified track teams; and the girls junior varsity and varsity soccer teams.
After his 2002 retirement, Coach Cunningham served as a physical education substitute teacher and continued coaching. But, his involvement in the school’s soccer program began in 1992 with the girls junior varsity soccer team as head coach, serving in that role until Spring 2021. When the opening for a girls varsity soccer head coach became available in Spring 2021, Coach Cunningham was appointed to it. During the 2020-21 school year, when COVID-19 impacted sports play, he led the girls varsity soccer team to a Section IX champion during the COVID-19 abbreviated season where Fall 2020 sports were played in Spring 2021.
The Board of Education unanimously approved the naming of the high school’s varsity soccer field as “The Coach Sean T. Cunningham Soccer Pitch” at its March 30 meeting.
See more photos on the district’s Facebook page.