Kevin Callahan (@CP_KCallahan)
After years of making bold and big moves on the courts around the Philadelphia area, Caitlyn Cunningham and Irisa Ye have made their most decisive and impactful move.
A move that promises to be their best.
Both Cunningham (Jefferson University) and Ye (University of the Sciences) could have been the top two returning players in the Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference (CACC) this year. The senior guards could’ve been challenging each other for the conference Player of the Year honor.
Instead, both made a different move. Their most mature move. They both chose to move on with the rest of their lives.
They both opted to not play another season of the game they love.
Ye (with ball) and Cunningham (second from left) were primed to be two of the biggest stars in local D-II hoops, but COVID cost them their senior years. (Photo courtesy University of the Sciences)
“It was definitely a very difficult decision,” Cunningham said. “I actually tore my ACL the year before COVID, so I didn’t have that season either. So I had two years without basketball and when you’re not playing, it kind of makes you take a step back and learn more about yourself and the hobbies you like to do in your free time.
“And I think having those two years off from basketball, I mean I was still helping out the team where I could as an injured reserve player, but I think after a while I realized that after five years and with my knee being injured, it might be the best decision for my health to stop playing next year.
“And I have my MBA, so there’s not really more I can do educational-wise,” added the Mount St. Joseph’s graduate.
Cunningham is working full-time as financial analyst at BNY Mellon in Delaware.
“I started working the week after I graduated, I jumped right into it,” Cunningham said about the move into the working world, mirroring the way she attacked on the basketball court, “It was definitely tough, I was lucky to have five years to play, I mean, I definitely have no regrets.”
Ye, a North Penn graduate, also endured injuries, which helped her make this next move, attending the Temple University School of Podiatric Medicine beginning this fall.
“I realized I had a bigger purpose and had already committed myself to medicine,” Ye said.
Ye also “seriously considered coming back for a fifth year” to get a Masters degree. But, the next challenge called.
“After talking to my family, my friends and my coaches, they were all extremely supportive of whatever decision I made and they never put any pressure on me,” Ye reflected. “It was so great of them and I realized that sometimes the most difficult decisions don’t always go the way you want.”
True, who wouldn’t want to play basketball for the rest of their lives? Especially players as accomplished as Cunningham and Ye. But the college recruiting tool “four for forty,” especially from prestigious universities like Sciences and Jefferson, are more than a catchy slogan.
Caitlyn Cunningham (above) missed her final two seasons at Jefferson due to her knee injury and the pandemic. (Photo courtesy Jefferson University)
“I definitely talked to a lot of people about it,” Cunningham said. “ I talked to my coach a lot and I talked to my assistant coaches, my friends, my parents, family. I had a lot of conversations, probably to the point where they were like just ‘make your decision’; because it was so many conversations.
“But I knew that it was my decision that I had to make, and I had to think about what was best for me moving forward.”
Jefferson did not compete in women's basketball during the 2020-21 academic year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was a really tough decision, ever since Covid started and they were talking about not having a season this year, I was thinking of what I would do since then, so it’s been a year long process of what my decision would be,” Cunningham said.
In 2019-20, Cunningham missed the season due to the knee injury while her Rams teammates were celebrating their second consecutive CACC Championship. Still, she was preparing for her biggest move and received the D2 ADA Academic Achievement Award.
In 2018-19, she started all 32 games, averaging 16.9 points, 4.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 2.3 steals. She scored in double figures 27 times with nine 20-point performances and netted a season-high 32 points against Dominican.
As a freshman in 2017-18, she came off the bench in 32 games for the at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament team, averaging 7.8 points, 3.3 rebounds, 1.6 assists and 1.3 steals.
In 2016-17, she redshirted coming out of Mount Saint Joseph Academy in Flourtown where she was a four-time varsity letter winner, serving as the team captain as a senior when she was an AACA All-Star First Team Selection, All-Star Labor Classic Honoree and Methacton Tournament All-Star.
“My biggest thing was when I look back and regret doing it because I technically only played two seasons out of my five because I redshirted at my freshman year and then my ACL and then Covid happened ” Cunningham said. “So I don’t want to regret the decision I made, but after having made the decision there’s always a clarity there and I feel like I’ve made the right decision.
“And I’m sure I’m going to miss basketball and when the season comes around. I’m sure I’ll be more nostalgic about it, but I think 20 years from now, I’ll look back and know it was the right decision and I think with my knee that was a big factor and hopefully I can avoid knee injuries in the future.”
This past season, Ye was one of just two Division II women's basketball student-athletes to repeat as Academic All-America First Team, as selected by the College Sports Information Directors of America (CoSIDA). She was the only representative of the 38 institutions in the Division II East Region.
Ye, who received a Bachelor of Science in Biomedical Sciences, graduated with a 3.95 grade point average after earning Dean's List Honors in all eight of her semesters, including achieving a 4.0 GPA four times.
Ye (above) was an all-region section and All-AMerican honorable mention twice. (Photo courtesy University of the Sciences)
“I definitely want to do surgery,” Ye said, “that’s what I first wanted to do when I got to college, I wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon, but I want to do more work-life balance and being an orthopedic surgeon, you’re on call all the time and it’s not the most ideal for having a life and a family.”
“At the moment, I want to own my own practice because I shadowed under podiatrists and a lot of them have their own practice, and so I want that and especially working with athletes and to be able to contribute to sports medicine.
“That is one of the biggest reasons I got into this because I was once in that position,” she continued about having surgery on both knees and suffering ankle sprains. “I’ve gotten injured numerous times so I’m very familiar with that perspective of an athlete being injured and especially the mental impact and I had to see a podiatrist and that’s how I got introduced to this whole field.”
In her three years on the court, she was as accomplished as in the classroom, being voted All-CACC First Team, D2CCA All-East Region First Team and WBCA All-America Honorable Mention twice, while being selected to three CACC Championship All-Tournament Teams.
She also appeared on the East Regional All-Tournament Team in 2019 after helping USciences qualify for its first-ever Sweet 16.
The Devils went a combined 87-11 during her three years, qualifying for three NCAA Tournaments and capturing three CACC South Division titles, while also winning the CACC Tournament in 2018.
The 2019-20 CACC Player of the Year graduated second in program history in field goal percentage (52.9), third in 3-point percentage (40.0), fourth in free throw percentage (83.2), seventh in points per game (14.0) and eighth in both points (1,341) and field goals made (486).
And, although Ye is moving on, she will still be moving around the hardwood.
“It’s not like I’m going to stop playing basketball forever, it’s just that this chapter of my life had come to an end,” said Ye, who plays in two summer leagues. “But it’s been really hard.”
Cunningham is also playing in two summer leagues while working, saying “I’m still playing competitively, but not to the degree I was in college.”
“I think it will definitely be the teammates,” Cunningham said about what she would miss most. “Some of my best friends now are my old teammates I played with in the past summer and in the beginning of it and there are some of my best friends, so it’s really hard to leave the team behind.
“And I think just the competitiveness and having those rivalries, so it was a tough decision because I knew I wouldn’t be getting that type of competitiveness anywhere else.”
“I think I’ll get back in coaching the next couple years,” Cunningham said, “but I want to take a year off and see what life is like without basketball in a super competitive sense.”