WATERFORD — As a 6-foot-10 center, DJ Cunningham was a force for the Waterford Wildcats in his playing days from 2006 to 2009.
Now, more than a decade later, Cunningham is hoping to have similar success as the head coach of his alma mater. Cunningham was named Waterford’s head boys basketball coach this week, taking over for Tom Simms, who coached Cunningham when he was in high school and retired after the 2021-22 season.
“I’m excited, honored and humbled at the same time,” said Cunningham, who was a first team All-Ohioan and a 1,000-point scorer for the Wildcats.
“I always knew after my basketball career ended I wanted to get back into it eventually. It’s something I’ve always envisioned.”
Cunningham graduated from Waterford in 2009 and went on to play collegiately for UNC Asheville. He spent five years with the Bulldogs and then briefly played overseas in Europe before returning to the area in 2014. Cunningham got his first taste of coaching last year when he guided Waterford’s junior high team.
“That really opened my eyes for the passion I had for it,” he said. “I knew I wanted to keep moving my way up. I didn’t envision it coming as fast as it did, but like I said before, I’m totally honored and humbled for the opportunity.”
As a player, Cunningham had a reputation for being hard-nosed, and he wants that to be a trait Waterford possesses under his direction.
“I want to to build a program where, when you find out you’re playing Waterford you know you’re in for a dogfight for 32 minutes,” he said.
“I believe in playing hard-nosed defense. I don’t want to say we’ll be totally defensive focused — I’m very open-minded on the offensive end as well. In today’s game, you’ve got to be adaptive. You’ve got to work with what you’ve got as far as players. Some years we might be running and gunning while other years we might be slowing it down. You’ve got to be able to adapt.”
Cunningham said his coaching style will be influenced by Simms, who he considers a mentor, and Brett Carey, one of his coaches at UNC Asheville.
“Coach Simms took over the program when I was a freshman,” Cunningham said. “He had some building to do back then. He’s a guy that stands out as a good mentor for me. He built the program into what it is now, and he didn’t leave a strung out program behind.
“(Carey) put that tough-nosed brand to me, so to speak. He’s a guy that didn’t care if you were the smallest guy in the gym or the biggest. Bring it and don’t back down was his philosophy. He was probably one of the best late-game-need-a-bucket play-drawers that I’ve come across. He was phenomenal at watching a game, studying weaknesses and being able to exploit them. Those two guys stand out in my mind as role models.”
Carey focused on coaching the big men with the Bulldogs. With Cunningham being a post player, he thinks one of strengths will be developing players in the paint. However, “once you get into Division I level basketball, you’re asked to do everything at times. I got the privilege of being able to work not only with some of the best big men coaches in the country, but at times you get thrown in with the guards. You learn the entirety of the game so much more. You live it, breathe it and are expected to know every aspect.”
Cunningham has spent the last week with the Waterford players, coaching them up at Williamstown’s Summer League “which has been great,” he said. “I’m extremely excited. We’ve got a group of some of the hardest working kids I’ve seen. They’re hungry and want to win. These kids come in and they get after it.”
Waterford returns all-district performer Jarrett Armstrong, a skilled 3-point shooter, along with names like Gavin Brooker and Gaibe Ponchak.
“We lost a lot from last year’s team,” Cunningham said. “There was a great core there in the senior class that moved on. I think people are going to overlook Waterford and they’re going to be surprised. We’re a little young, but they are workers. If they can keep that mentality up and continue to grow, it’s going to be a great year for Waterford.”
Cunningham and his wife, Ashleigh, have four kids — sons Braylon and Jack and daughters RayLynn and Hallie.
“I just want to extend thanks to the school, and Waterford as a whole for this opportunity,” he said. “And thanks to my family for allowing me to take the time. I’m going to need to do this.”
Jordan Holland can be reached at email@example.com.