Opal Curless’ journey from small hometown led her to bigger stage for Syracuse women’s soccer
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Syracuse head coach Phil Wheddon couldn’t believe the trek his freshman midfielder made to practice each week during high school.
Five hours there. Five hours back. Twice per week.
“I thought she was crazy,” Wheddon said.
The trips forced Curless to decide if soccer was something she wanted to dedicate her life to. She always traveled and had to fine-tune her time management skills to stay on top of sports, academics and her social life. But Curless’ top priority was a Division I soccer scholarship and making the biweekly trip was her way of attaining it.
Her skills gained exposure and allowed her to contribute as a freshman center midfielder for Syracuse (8-7-3, 1-6-2 Atlantic Coast) this season. With the Orange, she’s made appearances in all 18 games, including seven starts, and has recorded 10 shots.
The former Maine Gatorade Player of the Year is now a 580-mile drive from her home in Mount Desert Island, Maine. But Curless played her club soccer career for the FC Stars in Boston, where Curless will return on Thursday at 7 p.m. when Syracuse faces Boston College in its final game of the year.
Mount Desert Island isn’t the sports hub that Boston is.
“It’s a different culture up here,” said Michael Curless, Curless’ father. “People don’t care about playing Division I sports. It’s not as ambitious.”
Curless’ parents knew she wouldn’t have the competition she needed by playing only in Maine. They explored prep schools as an option but as they searched, the family realized it didn’t want Curless away from home.
The next closest option was the Stars, whose facility is in Acton, Massachusetts, almost 300 miles away from where Curless grew up.
“People probably thought she was crazy,” said Abigail Curless, Curless’ mother. “I thought I was crazy. What kind of parent signs up for that?”
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Two days a week for four years, Curless and her mother made the 5-hour journey to Acton. Curless would leave school at 1 p.m. on days she had FC Stars practice and often wouldn’t get back until 2 a.m.
The two developed a routine for every Tuesday and Thursday. They stopped at Whole Foods on the way to Acton, and at Chipotle on the way back.
“We were always the last to order,” Abigail Curless said. “We’d always get there just before it closed.”
The drive was expensive. There and back took a tank and a half of gas, Michael Curless said. The family is currently on its second Toyota Prius, he said. Even with the gas mileage a Hybrid offers, there was just so much driving.
Curless bonded with her mom during the drives. Curless often did her homework in the car, but they also talked a lot with each other, called family, and rented books on tape.
“We listened to the whole Anne of Green Gables series,” Abigail Curless said, referencing the classical novel series.
Curless learned to drive during the journeys. While she had her permit, she would do much of the Maine portion of the trip and her mom would take over in Massachusetts. Her parents let her get her license as soon as possible so that she could do more of the drive.
On one occasion Curless and her mom drove all the way to Acton, only to have the practice get rained out. After about 15 minutes of practice, a thunderstorm started, Curless said.
“I just turned to my mom and said ‘Sorry,’” Curless said.
Since Curless left school early in order to get to practice on time, she had to organize her classes around her practices and make arrangements with teachers to make up for time.
Matt Lawson, Curless’ history teacher, helped her career. Lawson understood the complacent culture of the area because he was one of the few people who escaped the small town environment many locals are consumed by.
You can practically see tumbleweed cross the street in the winter, Lawson joked. Kids don’t go to a high school with more than 500 students, and they don’t drive on a four-lane highway.
“People want to leave,” Lawson said. “People want to go and see the rest of the world but this place is doable and this place is navigable. The rest of the world is scary.”
At Syracuse, Curless is surrounded by more than 20,000 students and Interstate-81 cuts through the middle of the city. She went from living in an island town of 10,000 to a city with a population 14 times that.
“Everyone you encounter is going to be bigger, faster, and stronger,” Lawson said. “You have to raise yourself to that level to compete.”
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Lawson helped Curless stay on track with her classes and helped her with schoolwork if she needed, but he was mostly there for advice.
They talked about what it’s like going out into a big city and experiencing a new world outside of their small bubble.
“Just because you’re from a small town doesn’t mean you can’t compete,” Lawson said.
Traveling and playing for the Stars helped Curless gain exposure. The Stars have consistently ranked as one of the top teams in the country. Her play for the club attracted the attention of Syracuse in only her sophomore year of high school and she committed to the Orange in March 2013.
“She has all the characteristics you need to play at this level,” Wheddon said. “And her travel showed the level of commitment she has to the game.”
She now plays in a much bigger place and on a much bigger stage. The Stars helped Curless get out of her bubble of Mount Desert Island, Maine.
But even a nationally-ranked club team is not the same as Division-I. The quality is better, the commitment is greater and the lights are brighter.
Still, Curless has shined. She’s on her own now, in a whole different world from what she had ever known before. But she likes this new world. It’s why she drove all that way.
“I was really ready for a new experience,” Curless said. “Syracuse has really become my second home.”
Published on October 26, 2016 at 11:40 pm
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