RIDGEFIELD — Caroline Curnal has spent the entire school year in the Ridgefield High School gymnasium. Right now she is going through practices with the girls basketball team, which opens the season on the road Monday against Masuk. Curnal will play an increased role for the Tigers this season, moving into the starting lineup for a team that graduated its two best players, but is still considered a contender.
Curnal only had a few days away from the gym: she earned great acclaim this fall as one of the top players for the Ridgefield volleyball team, which enjoyed the best season in school history, reaching the state final for the first time. Curnal drew attention not just for her thunderous hits, but consistent play on the back row.
It was a breakout season for Curnal, who was named third team All-FCIAC — a voting misstep by league coaches, who undervalued her talent.
Curnal’s quick development also makes her a perfect case study for an issue often revisited on this site: the pros and cons of early college commitments. Curnal is one of a declining number of three-sport athletes, and on Sept. 22 gave a verbal commitment to play lacrosse at Lafayette, her father’s alma mater. Curnal played attack and was a draw specialist last season.
Lacrosse is one of the few sports where early verbal commitments — and Curnal’s in a sense was somewhat late given that many are made by freshmen and sophomores — are so prevalent. A college decision is hard enough for seniors, imagine making the choice before you have even made it through a year or two of high school. It has become a game of musical chairs. Lacrosse players, though they gain the security of having their futures somewhat secured, are also afraid that by waiting too long they could end up with limited opportunities. Yet a lot can change after an early decision.
“I was definitely afraid to verbal my senior year and the coaches didn’t put any pressure on me to feel obligated,” Curnal said. “I felt more obligated myself.”
Curnal’s situation is somewhat unique, and because she possesses the maturity to talk about it frankly, she offers great insights.
Curnal played all sports growing up and gravitated to lacrosse in the 4th grade, working her way up through youth and travel programs.
“Playing the sport for a while I felt it was something I could get good at and I loved to play,” Curnal said. “I always wanted to be on the field. I knew I wanted to play a sport in college. It was something I could not give up. I’ve been involved in sports my entire life.”
Curnal was a soccer player, but opted to start playing volleyball once she arrived at the high school. She both immediately fell in love with the sport, and discovered she was quite talented, helping the junior varsity team to an undefeated season as a freshman and earning regular time with the varsity last year.
“At the end of the first season I think that’s when I realized I really need to play that sport,” Curnal said. “I absolutely loved it. I haven’t had a day where I haven’t thought about it. And after the season was over I missed it, and playing club my sophomore year helped me get better and develop my skills.”
Then came this year, when Curnal combined with Elizabeth Middlebrook to give Ridgefield one of the best 1-2 hitting attacks in the conference. Curnal’s versatility helped the Tigers overcome a two-set deficit to rally and defeat Greenwich in the state semifinals. She had few peers in terms of sheer power on her spikes.
Two months after deciding on Lafayette, Curnal discovered she was now good enough to play two sports in college.
“I knew I loved the sport, but since I was so new to it I never had thought about the college level,” Curnal said. “I knew I had the potential to be good as a high school athlete and I think this year I showed it.”
Curnal admits she now is in an unusual position. She has no regrets about her choice to play lacrosse in college, but is forthright to admit if unattached, she would have a hard time, if forced, deciding on which sport to play after leaving Ridgefield.
“It’s still something I’m thinking about but I knew lacrosse was going to be my go-to,” Curnal said. “I worked hard every day. I liked club. My coach told me I had to stay on the court and get touches on the ball. It is a mindset and it is really hard, you have to work. It helped our team was close and we wanted to take it far, and it is what got us to state finals.”
Asked what her favorite sport currently is, Curnal smiled. “I’m more of an in-season kind of person, I like whatever I am playing at the time,” she said.
Curnal now has a perspective on the early verbal commitment that others may lack. There was no way of knowing that two years after trying a new sport, she would become a budding star.
“For the multi-sport athletes it is definitely difficult to verbal early because of picking the sport you want to play in college,” she said. “My parents always tell me that you don’t need to rush. It is your morals. If you verbal it is a commitment. You are loyal to the coaches that you met with. Have you come to campus. That is why it is hard to make a decision what to do or if something were to happen what I would do then. It is pacing yourself. You don’t have to be rushed.”
Rather than being torn by her situation, Curnal may have the good fortune of getting the best of both worlds. Lafayette has broached the idea of letting her play both sports in college. Alison Fisher, the Lafayette coach, played both lacrosse and field hockey at the school.
“I let it go because two sports in college, that’s a lot, but depending on how good I get maybe that will be a fit for me,” Curnal said. “It is a weird situation. There’s still pressure on me now. I also have to fulfill what I did this year into next year, in both sports. It’s nice to sit back and relax but at the same time I still have to keep up my grades. There’s no guarantee. It is just a verbal.”
So what would Curnal do now if she was still going through the college process?
“I would have to think about it for weeks probably,” she said. “It’s because the sports are so different. Between volleyball and lacrosse it is hard to choose between the two. You definitely have to know going into it that the recruiting process is going to take some time and there needs to be a lot of dedication. I wouldn’t say I would do it differently. I got more of a feel for high school sports and knew more what I wanted to do junior year instead of freshman year. I think that is something I would like differently. But I can’t complain. I committed. I’m happy.”
Curnal said ultimately she is appreciative of her situation. Not many athletes are skilled enough to play in college. As a free agent, she would be coveted in two sports.
“I’m so grateful to know that college coaches had interest in me and all my hard work went for something,” she said.
Curnal will table thoughts about her future for the time being. As Curnal said, she is an in-season athlete. Right now, it is basketball season.