The girls’ basketball camp introduced her to then-coach Courtney Banghart and the women’s basketball program. Her camp coach, Alex Wheatley ’16 *20, made a big impression, and she returned to Tiger Camp the following year as well.
“It’s also when I started liking sports in general,” said Cunningham. Going to camp gave her “an outlet” for the competitiveness that she’d always had.
The New Jersey native also played softball, but basketball was more her pace. Cunningham came to watch Princeton games, and the Tigers watched as she developed into the career leading scorer at Watchung Hills High School, a feat recognized along with her commitment to Princeton by the town council with “Julia Cunningham Day” April 19, 2018. (Watchung’s mayor at the time, Stephen Pote ’84, presented a Princeton cap and pennant.)
Cunningham has continued to develop over the last five years at Princeton. Her transition to the speed and physical demands of the college game was typical, but Cunningham earned six starts in her first year. Her numbers jumped from her first to second season, and after she took a leave of absence during the pandemic-canceled 2020-21 season, her linear improvements in every statistic last winter earned her a first-team All-Ivy selection.
“She certainly works really, really hard on her game during the offseason, and in-season she’s always in the gym getting extra shots up and working on her footwork and her shot,” said coach Carla Berube. “It’s not a surprise that every year she’s elevated her game.”
Cunningham’s scoring jumped from 8.2 to 13.4 points per game, her rebounds almost doubled from 83 to 162 total, and her assists, steals, and blocks all increased. Cunningham credited being able to work out with off-campus roommates Ellie Mitchell ’24, Maggie Connolly ’23, Kaitlyn Chen ’24, and Chet Nweke ’24 during the pandemic while she took prerequisite classes toward physician assistant school, something she will pursue if she doesn’t get a chance to play professionally overseas next year.
“A lot of my COVID year I spent working on my finishing, getting a lot of shooting in, and just getting physically stronger and in really good shape to be ready to come back for the season,” Cunningham said. “That’s one of the most important things I did and where I saw the biggest statistical jump.”
The physical improvements were part of what enabled the 5-foot-11 guard to take on a larger defensive role on top of upping her offensive productivity. Cunningham became Princeton’s stopper for an opponent’s top guard, a nod to her development under the defensive-minded Berube.
“We joke back and forth that she probably wouldn’t have recruited me out of high school because my defense was not so great,” Cunningham said. “But then she was stuck with me so she had to make it work.”
Cunningham returns for her final year in a similar role at both ends, though expectations again are elevated for her and the Tigers. After graduating one starter, leading scorer Abby Meyers ’22, from last year’s 25-5 team that reached the NCAA Tournament’s second round, Princeton became the first Ivy women’s team to be ranked in the AP preseason poll when it was selected 24th. The Tigers were picked by the media as favorites to win a fifth straight Ivy League title. Princeton is preparing for Ivy play against a nonconference schedule that includes games at Texas Nov. 27 and UConn Dec. 8.
Those early games will “prepare us for the basketball we want to be playing in March,” Cunningham said.
Cunningham is part of a five-member senior class that is leading the charge. From camper to captain, she has improved every step of the way with the Princeton program.
“She’s a great role model,” Berube said. “The players, they see that in their leader and they want to get in the gym and get better. I’m just looking forward to watching her this season and seeing what kind of impact and legacy she’s going to leave here.”