For years, Jen Curtin joked that if Archbishop Riordan High School ever admitted one girl, it would be her.
While that never quite came to fruition, she has found a way to join her brothers at the school both attended and where both now work, taking the helm as Riordan’s Dean of Students and head girls volleyball coach.
Curtin’s decision to leave her alma mater of St. Ignatius (SI), where she worked for 11 years and served as a very successful head volleyball coach for the past four, wasn’t an easy one. But the chance to join Riordan, which began admitting girls only in 2020 after the closure of nearby Mercy, was special.
“I’m grateful for everything I’ve learned and gained because of my experience at SI, but the Riordan connection is strong,” she said. “I’ve been going to Riordan games longer than I’ve been going to SI games. It’s really familiar to me.”
Her new team has played just 22 contests in its entire history, including three outdoor games in March of 2021 amid pandemic restrictions, and Curtin says the opportunity to develop a program from the ground up was also a big draw.
“What I really love is building a culture,” Curtin said, noting that a school team could offer something that volleyball clubs, where many top players compete, could not.
“When they come to play for their school, it’s special and different because it’s not just about them anymore. You’re suddenly playing for the school, you’re playing in front of friends and with your friends, and you’re playing in front of family members and neighbors, and that’s what’s gonna be fun about establishing and creating culture at Riordan.”
Curtin will have no shortage of family at Riordan. Her older brother, Joey, graduated from the school in 2001 and has served as head boys basketball coach for the past five seasons, leading the Crusaders to a CCS Open Division title in 2022. Younger brother Danny graduated in 2008 and currently serves as vice president of enrollment and strategy.
Riordan and SI are fierce rivals in boys sports, but blood ties usually prevailed within the Curtin family. When SI and Riordan’s basketball teams squared off, Jen was usually seated behind the Crusader bench, even with some of her players and English students in the Wildcats’ student section. But there are still plenty of warm feelings towards SI.
“We were a pretty well-oiled machine at SI, and I had such great girls and families. There are people that I’ll be staying in touch with from the volleyball program,” she said.
The on-court success that the Wildcats experienced under Curtin was evident with their frequent deep playoff runs. Less obvious is the community that she built, dating back to her days as a player and an assistant coach.
“She really focuses on the team systems and goals,” Joey said of his sister. “She has a quiet intensity about her.”
The sisterhood was on display last October, when Wildcat volleyball alumnae from across multiple decades met for a happy hour at Kezar Pub ahead of the first-ever Bruce-Mahoney volleyball game between SI and Sacred Heart Cathedral. She hopes to build similar bonds with her new program.
“Brotherhood has been a part of the Riordan tradition for so long, and we’re trying to establish sisterhood,” she said.
As for Riordan’s upcoming season, challenges abound. The girls’ teams at Riordan have yet to join the West Catholic Athletic League, instead playing a freelance schedule. That means they’re not eligible for the playoffs, and logistics can be a bigger challenge.
The upside is the Crusaders can play more equitable competition, rather than getting thrown into the fire against the likes of reigning NorCal champ Archbishop Mitty.
Curtin will be working with a young team, a sophomore-heavy group led by outside hitter Melissa Chiao and middle blocker Carol Manu.
“I remember being on the other side when SI played Riordan, and I said, ‘okay, I see that freshman,’” Curtin said of Manu. “She was strong and had good footwork.”
Senior leadership will be hard to find on such a young team, but Curtin expects the junior class to be able to shoulder the load, citing the high volleyball IQ of Analee Ronas and the leadership of Elizabeth Saavedra.
League membership remains a few years off. “We still don’t have a set date,” Curtin said when asked about Riordan’s girls programs joining the WCAL. “We keep hearing ‘in a couple years, probably.’ That’ll be a hard transition when it comes because those programs are so well-established.”
Indeed, it could be a long time before the Crusaders can compete with teams like the one Curtin left behind at St. Ignatius. But there’s nothing quite like having your family at your side.
“My brothers and I really love and respect each other and we work well together. We know how to push each other. We’re ok with calling each other out respectfully,” Jen said. “We’re always together as much as possible outside of our work environment, so this is like a bonus.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the title of Danny Curtin. He is now vice president of enrollment and strategy at Riordan.Ethan Kassel can be reached at [email protected].