BAY RIDGE — In the four years she attended Fontbonne Hall Academy, Caileigh O’Donohue Duggan made an indelible impression on many people in her life.
Fontbonne athletic director Linda Strong called Duggan one of the kindest, brightest, and “all-around happiest” girls. Her volleyball teammate and “freshman sister” Emily McCartney said she never hesitated to give a stranger a smile or uplift a friend.
And her uncle, Brian Duggan, remembers that even before she went to high school, his niece was the “sweetest girl in Breezy Point,” where she grew up and spent hours at the beach riding her bike and swimming.
Duggan died unexpectedly on June 10, at just 18 years old, from an undiagnosed heart condition, leaving her grieving family and the Fontbonne community searching for a way to celebrate her life and honor her memory.
McCartney had an idea: to retire the number 17, the jersey number she wore as a standout Fontbonne volleyball player. That happened in an emotional ceremony on Sept. 12 in the school’s packed gymnasium during a match against Xaverian.
Volleyball was a major part of Duggan’s life. She competed at the junior varsity and varsity levels at Fontbonne, and was a member of the 2022 diocesan and city championship teams. The latter squad made it to the finals of the state championship.
She was also a member of the Brooklyn Elite Volleyball Club, and was the team captain. Among her other talents, Duggan was also an accomplished Irish step dancer.
Fontbonne’s varsity head coach, Sami Jindyeh, said he’ll never forget Duggan’s competitive ferocity and the joy she exuded when she played.
“Everytime she would go up, she’d get her kill. She would turn around slowly, she would land, and start smiling to all her teammates,” Jindyeh said. However, he added, “she knew when to be the nicest human, and when to keep people in line.”
McCartney said she cherishes the memory of the role Duggan played as her “senior sister,” being a guide for the then-freshman when she first arrived at the school. She’s especially gratified that no one else will ever wear the number 17 volleyball jersey, which will be prominently displayed in Fontbonne’s gym.
“We should all aspire to be like Caileigh. Always smiling, showing love and compassion to everyone, and encouraging others to be the best version of themselves, on and off the court,” McCartney said.
Duggan could not conquer the heart ailment that took her life, but she was a winner much earlier in life. She was born with severe amblyopia, commonly referred to as “lazy eye,” which can lead to blindness if not treated early. Her uncle noted that through therapy, she was able to overcome it and move from severe to no amblyopia.
This year, she was attending her “dream school,” the University of Tennessee, and had just completed her first year in their nursing program. Her goal was to become a pediatric oncology nurse.
Brian Duggan represented Caileigh’s parents, MaryEllen and Joe, and her sister, Reilly, who were still too grief-stricken to attend the jersey retirement ceremony. What made his niece special, he said, was not how she played volleyball, but how she handled herself on the court and in life.
“We knew what we had, even before this horrific tragedy,” Brian Duggan said. “We clearly saw Caileigh’s character, and we knew it was special, particularly for a teenage girl.”