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Messer’s sterling career leads to her entering into Wingate Hall of Fame

Posted: February 1, 2018 11:16 a.m.
Updated: February 2, 2018 1:00 a.m.
Photo courtesy of Jason Walle/

GRACE CUNNINGHAM MESSER ACCEPTS the plaque following her induction into the Wingate University Athletic Hall of Fame from Wingate University president, Dr. Rhett Brown during a ceremony held at the school.

Nothing quite humbles a college athlete as does sitting the bench especially after coming to the school following a heralded high school career.

When Grace Cunningham left Camden High School following her graduation in 2002, she exited after one of the most distinguished softball playing careers in the history of the Lady Bulldog program. As someone who rarely watched an inning from the bench during her six seasons as a member of Lynn Looney’s program, her next stop was to Wingate University  which signed Cunningham --- now Grace Cunningham Messer --- to a National Letter of Intent early that summer.

Like any high school senior, Messer had prepared herself for the rigors of college both in the classroom and on the field. She was ready for the uptick in the talent level she would see in both her teammates and opponents. 

What the AAA All-State selection was not fully prepared for was not being part of the action when the Wingate’s 2003 softball season opened. She stayed on the bench through the first several weeks of her freshman campaign pondering --- what was then --- her current state of affairs.

“I’m not going to lie,” said Messer, who lives in Camden with her husband and their young son and daughter, “my freshman year, my coach (Michelle Caddigan) really didn’t need me. I sat the bench half the year, probably more than half the year. That was so hard for me … it was horrible.

“I just wanted a chance to prove myself. Once I got that chance, though, there was no going back. I put everything I had into it.”

By season’s end, Messer had worked her way onto the field to the point in which she delivered the game-winning, extra inning walk-off single in Wingate’s victory over Carson-Newman in the South Atlantic Conference (SAC) championship game.

“We had a runner on second in a tie game in extra innings,” Messer said recalling the situation as if it happened yesterday. “(Caddigan) called me over and said, ‘Grace, why don’t you just win the game right here.’ I was like, ‘All right, I’ll do that.’

“I got up there and hit a ball between left and center field. I didn’t even make it to second base and (Caddigan) was running to me from across the field. It was really gratifying to finally have her approval and show her that she could depend on me.”

More than 14 years after that memorable contest, Messer was inducted into Wingate’s 2017 Athletic Hall of Fame. She and her fellow honorees were feted in an on-campus ceremony.

A quick look at Messer’s numbers all but cemented her place in the hall of fame at the North Carolina institution.

A four-year All-SAC selection at Wingate who was first-team all-conference as a junior and senior, Messer played every position --- save for catcher --- during her career. She finished her Bulldog tenure with 214 hits, 24 home runs, 40 doubles and 127 RBI.

Even though possessing such gaudy numbers, Messer said she was still surprised when former Wingate head baseball coach Bill Nash, who serves on the selection panel for the school’s hall of fame, called to tell her of her selection.

“I was at home and I was just doing my usual stuff when Bill Nash called,” said Messer, who still calls Camden home. “It was exciting. I was really honored and pleased to receive it. I couldn’t wait to get back and see everybody again.”

While Messer never gave much thought to being enshrined alongside the best student-athletes in Wingate history, before she graduated, Caddigan told Messer to not stray far from the phone in the future.  

“I’ve been playing softball forever,” Messer said of the honor. “I never played for or thought about things like that but I remember, after my career ended up, Coach (Michelle) Caddigan saying, ‘There is no doubt in my mind that you will make it into the hall of fame.’ I never did think about it until she said that.

“I thought about it and said, ‘If I do, it would be awesome. If not, I still had the time of my life playing there.’”

There was no time, no season, which was more memorable than the 2006 campaign when the Bulldogs and Messer re-wrote the softball history books. That spring, Messer --- then a senior --- posted school-record totals of 16 home runs, 84 hits and 67 RBI while batting .412 as the Bulldogs recorded the most hits in SAC history. Wingate’s runs and batting average are second on the all-time SAC charts, while the team’s 47 victories are the seventh-most in the league record books. Messer's 149 total bases in remains the second-most in SAC history.

It was not until the end of the 2006 season, though, that Messer was able to grasp what she and her teammates had done.

“We had a player on the team who loved videoing and she made a video of that whole year,” said Messer, who earned Division II All-Southeast Region honors that season. “At the end of that video, she listed all of our stats; our team’s stats and our individual stats. Honestly, that was the first time I had ever seen them. It was just a reminder of just how awesome that season was.”

The stat which stands out when it comes to Messer was the 16 home runs. As a senior at Camden High in 2002, she batted .485 with eight doubles, four triples, and a pair of home runs while posting an .808 slugging percentage. 

At Wingate, she hit her first career home run as a sophomore and added seven more as a junior before going on a long ball tear in her final college go ‘round. She said seeing that many balls leaving the park were a surprise to her.

“I hit one home run my sophomore year. I hit a few more my junior year and when I saw that I was capable of doing that, it really pushed me,” Messer said of her power numbers at Wingate. “I worked so hard on hitting every day. I pushed myself hard every day.”

Messer credited the Wingate coaching and training staff for helping her develop into the player she became. “I was always a good hitter who could get on base,” Messer said of her high school career. “When I got to college, I said, ‘These people know their stuff and they’re showing me all these things.’ You work so hard. They really motivated me.”

Before signing with Wingate, Messer was concerned that she was being pigeon-holed by colleges as a pitcher. 

Needing someone to step inside the circle, Looney looked to Messer who, as a senior, went 14-7 for the Lady Bulldogs with 113 strikeouts in as many innings. She issued just seven walks, pitched to a .991 earned run average while helping Camden into the Upper State semifinals in her senior season of 2002.

Messer’s work on the rubber and at the plate led to her being named the Region 4-AAA softball player of the year, being selected to play in the North-South All-Star softball game while also being tabbed as the outstanding female athlete at CHS for the 2001-02 academic year.

“I didn’t go to college as a pitcher. I didn’t even want to be a pitcher in high school. I wanted to be a shortstop but it just happened the way it did,” she said. “I, honestly, got worried that nobody would really want me because they never saw me (play) anywhere else in high school. I used the summer to do that.”

Playing summer softball allowed Messer to play in the field for an elite team which would play against and beat squads made up of players who already played college softball. The summer seasons became a college primer for Messer who received a healthy dose of what college softball would be like.

“When I went into college, it was a different world,” she said. “Everybody’s good and it’s like a job there because you put so much time into it. It just became an even better sport for me playing at that level and seeing your real potential come out.”

As someone who could and did play eight different positions in college, practices at Wingate were always a new experience for Messer, especially as a freshman, before she settled in at shortstop, he natural post in the field.

“It was funny, really. Every day, I would go out to practice and wonder, ‘Where do I go today?’” she said. “You would think that maybe I was not getting enough practice at where I needed to be in order to play a position. It really didn’t turn out to be that way. I just worked hard wherever I was put that particular day and when I was needed in a position, I played that position to the best of my ability.

“Eventually, I settled into a routine. By my sophomore, junior and senior years, I settled into a position where I was going to be. Even though it changed from year to year, I just gave it my all. It didn’t matter to me because, no matter what, I was just going to go out there and play and do the best that I could do.”

That philosophy served Grace Cunningham Messer well throughout her life and softball-playing career whether in the recreation leagues, Camden High, summer softball or at Wingate. As she looked back on her collegiate career, however, if there was one thing she would change it would be to see just how well she would do if she was at full strength for four years.

“The only thing that I wish that could have been different,” she said, “was my health. I always say that I wonder what I could have done had I been at 100 percent but I was sick, pretty much, the whole time I was there. It was very challenging.

“As far as any choices that I made, going there or anything like that, I don’t regret any of that. I just wish that I would have know what it would have really been like had I been 100 percent healthy.”

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