Feb. 21, 2012
By Sam Hickman
Four years ago, an undersized striker from Lee-Davis High School in Mechanicsville, Va., explored several options regarding her future. She didn't know which route she would take in attempting to extend her life as an amateur soccer player. Ultimately, Kimmy Cummings would venture south and earn a roster position for Coach Rob Donnenwirth and the East Carolina Pirates as a walk-on.
Once merely an afterthought, it's now hard to envision the program without Cummings.
Although Cummings concluded an illustrious career on the pitch in November with a loss to Memphis in the Conference USA Tournament, her contributions as a senior were of a decided triumphant nature. The former non-scholarship athlete scored a team-high nine goals during the 2011 campaign after netting only six in her first three years at East Carolina. Those goals included a pair of game-winners as Cummings played an integral role in leading the team to an 11-8-1 record. The Pirates enjoyed an unprecedented run of success during her era, which included a Conference USA Championship in 2008 and the birth of the ECU Soccer Stadium.
However, Cumming's impact is not solely defined by all-league accolades or countless academic achievements - she's been named to the ECU Director of Athletics Honor Roll every semester since 2008.
She took a leadership role in "Riley's Army," a local organization geared toward helping cancer patients and their families. The establishment is named after Riley Philpot, a 10-year old girl from just outside Greenville that lost a courageous battle with Wilms' tumor - a rare kidney cancer - last May. The community continues to rally around the Philpots and many others facing similar adversity.
Perhaps no single group has benefitted from the experience more than Cummings and the women's soccer program. No. 15's impact stretches far beyond the parameters of the field, embodying the selflessness and sacrifice that has been a staple of her stint at ECU.
Prior to her final campaign in the Purple and Gold, Cummings had a conversation during the summer with a teammate on a semi-pro team in Fredericksburg, Va., that would foreshadow a life-changing turn of events.
"I don't know how it even came up," she shared. "I played with a girl who had a chance to go overseas and play professionally. She decided not to go and it made me think, `What would I do if that opportunity presented itself?' It was still a long-shot at that point, but I started to give it thought at least."
What happened next can be described as chance, circumstance, or even luck.
Cummings labeled it "fate."
Donnenwirth hired assistant coach Jason Cherry to be a part of the Pirates' coaching staff after the latter served in a similar capacity at Western Illinois University from 2008 until 2010. During his time with the Leathernecks, he developed a close friendship with head coach Tony Guinn. Guinn shared a tight bond with Billy Clarke, manager of the women's team for Glentoran Belfast United F.C. - a professional club in Northern Ireland. It was not until Christmas break that Cherry seriously introduced the idea to Guinn about Cummings playing for Clarke at Glentoran.
"After I told Tony and he told Billy, we all stayed in contact. We had sent players over there in the past," Cherry explained. "I knew Kimmy's dedication and work rate and I thought it would be a good fit. Kimmy's just a great person, too. I remember getting on Skype with Billy Clark and he said it'd be great to have her. I remember him telling me, `Thanks, Jason. You just filled a spot for me.' I approached Kimmy and told her it'd be a great opportunity. I gave Glentoran Kimmy's contact information, I gave her the club's information, and it went from there."
Suddenly Cummings was faced with the decision of playing overseas professionally, a reality that she still labels "unreal" and a "dream come true."
"Looking back at my career, you know, I started as a walk-on," said Cummings, who will graduate in May with a business administration degree that includes a triple concentration in marketing, management and management information systems. "I would have never imagined that I would start here without a scholarship and end up playing professionally anywhere.
"I don't think there's anyone else who saw it as an option because I didn't. I figured soccer would just come-and-go and I'd play in recreation leagues when I finished college. It's funny how things work out. I'm grateful for Coach (Cherry) because without him, I don't know if it would've been possible."
Glentoran does not begin its campaign until mid-April, but Cummings intends to graduate before packing her cleats and heading to the Irish outpost to compete against the world's best. The First Team All-Conference USA performer will be faced with the challenge of performing at a high level under intense pressure as Glentoran captured a division title last season, which earned the club a berth into the 2012-2013 UEFA Women's Champion's League competition. Seven members on the 2011 FIFA World Cup Qualifying roster for Glentoran play on Northern Ireland's national team.
Cummings came to East Carolina as a blip on the radar. This summer, she could find herself pitted against Arsenal and other traditional European powerhouses.
In the meantime, Cummings has been training in a familiar atmosphere.
"I am still working out with the team here," the versatile striker/midfielder pointed out, fresh off an afternoon workout and preparing for an evening run. "I didn't realize until December that the opportunity was real. It has all happened so fast. I would have still been training and running if this wouldn't have happened, but I wouldn't have been playing as much soccer. I still lift and run with the team, but being out there with the girls, competing, and working on my ball skills helps the most. It keeps me in playing shape."
As far as play on the field, Cherry has no doubts that the Pirates' senior leader in 2011 will make the necessary adaptations to become a successful pro across the Atlantic.
"Off the ball, her work-rate is fantastic. Her speed is great. She has a fitness level that most people don't have. She can play 90-plus minutes and multiple positions if needed. I think she'll see different positions. She can handle that. She is an attacking player, but she always gets back and defends. There aren't many holes in her game."
Cherry noted that he has witnessed situations in which athletes didn't respond well enough to deal with the change in scenery.
During a stint as associate men's head coach at Bethel College, Cherry instructed a goalkeeper who traveled to Europe for multiple tryouts. Though the player landed a spot on a club roster, he left less than a month into the experience. Cherry said that the challenges lie in handling the cultural differences and inescapable homesickness.
"The hardest thing is going to a different country and being away from home. I actually sent a men's player over to Ireland and Wales to try out for teams," Cherry said. "He made a team and only lasted two weeks because he was homesick.
"The programs are different there. Instead of practicing every day, there are only two-three practices a week, but those last for over three hours on some days. In Kimmy's case, I don't see that being a problem. She'll go out and do the work on her own, that's never been an issue with her."
While Cummings' eagerness and excitement is clearly evident, it is hard for the soon-to-be graduate to share those sentiments without reflecting back on her playing days as a Pirate.
"I never thought my career would have ended as successfully as it did," Cummings stated with unreserved emotion. "All four teams have been different. My class came (in 2008) and the team won a conference championship. I'm proud of that, but going out this year and beating UCF in the conference tournament is what will always stick with me.
"These girls are like sisters to me and the coaches and staff have been great. This group really is like a family. Watching the program grow is insane. It's very special to me."
Cummings finished by verbalizing how much she would miss the college experience. In return, the East Carolina community will miss Cummings, one of the all-time greats on the field and an even better ambassador away from it.