BEACON FALLS — Nicole Fowler is Tayler Boncal’s best friend and longtime teammate. So, like any good best friend would, Fowler jumped at the chance to tell an embarrassing story about Boncal.
“During softball season freshman year, we were having batting practice before a game and she somehow managed to run into the pitching machine,” Fowler recalls. “She got burned and her pants ripped.”
Hey, it happens.
Three years later, Boncal is set to graduate from Woodland as one of the top female athletes in school history — a distinction that came much more differently than she could have imagined as a freshman star on the softball team.
Boncal came to Woodland with her eyes set on cracking the softball lineup as a freshman in 2010. That year, which remains as the Hawks’ only Naugatuck Valley League softball championship, she earned the starting gig in right field and rose to the No. 2 hole in the lineup.
“Going into high school my goal was to start varsity softball,” Boncal says. “It was awesome playing with seniors like Katie Alfiere and Emily Hutvagner. I played travel softball for so many years and that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to go all-state and get a Division I scholarship and all that.”
That season, which ended in the Class M quarterfinals, turned out to be Boncal’s last opportunity to get her pants caught in a pitching machine. She discovered indoor track and that revelation, plus unhappiness with her summer softball situation, turned her path to the track.
“I didn’t expect to be as good at track as I was,” Boncal says. “And there was some drama with travel softball in the summer, so I fell in love with track. I wish I could have played both.”
Woodland track coach Tim Shea was excited when Boncal decided to exchange her softball spikes for the running variety.
“When she decided to run I knew we were in for a few good years,” Shea says. “Not only is she fast but she’s got a very good work ethic. There’s not an ounce of laziness in her at all when she’s at track. We’d actually have to slow her down a little bit.”
Track turned out to be Boncal’s bread and butter. Her accomplishments both indoor and outdoor, where she ended up earning a closetful of gold medals and school records, along with her other exploits earned her recognition as the NVL Female Senior Athlete of the Year.
“I was in disbelief,” Boncal remembers about learning of the award. “When (Woodland athletic director Brian Fell) told me about it, I was like ‘Oh my God, that’s incredible.’ I had the most All-NVLs and records out of anybody, and to me that’s a huge accomplishment. All my hard work was noticed.”
While track was where she earned the volume of her accomplishments — including recruitment to the squad at Stony Brook University, where she’ll run and study health sciences — she says her most memorable season was her senior volleyball campaign.
The Hawks reached the Class M state final for the first time in program history but fell to Ledyard, 3-1. The tournament included a thrilling 3-2 win over Plainfield in the quarterfinals and a near-perfect 3-0 sweep of Tolland in the semifinals.
“It was one of the best experiences of my life,” Fowler said of playing that season with Boncal. “That season strengthened the bond between us so much. She’s my best friend and an amazing teammate, which is why I’m so happy that as seniors we went out together with a bang.”
Woodland’s loss in the championship at East Haven was tough to swallow at first, Boncal says. But the magnitude of what her team had accomplished set in before the end of the day.
“On the bus ride home we were all sad and disappointed, but when we pulled up to the school we all stood there and were like, ‘Did we just do that?’ Boncal recounts. “We all realized how much we had accomplished and that we made Woodland history.”
There was another part of that day that still sits with Boncal — the sea of black and gold that littered the stands.
“Seeing everybody come out to East Haven for our championship — if that doesn’t show Hawk pride, I don’t know what does,” Boncal says. “It really does keep our small little school together. I like to support other teams because I like getting supported, too.”
Fowler thinks Boncal might be a bit modest in saying that she merely supports other teams.
“She’s always the first one to get to any sporting event at Woodland that she can and she screams her lungs out cheering on the teams,” Fowler says. “She’s always wearing black and gold and goes all out at the pep rally. Also, her most used hashtag on Twitter is definitely ‘hawkpride.’”
There was a third element to Boncal’s Woodland career that Shea says was just as impactful as her talent and school pride: Boncal was as good a leader as a coach could want.
“There were days when I would get up there a little later, and she would take it upon herself to get everyone started running and stretching,” Shea says. “You don’t get that a lot.”
When Boncal walks across the stage at Monday’s graduation, she thinks she’ll have left behind a little more than a scuff mark from black high heels.
“I hope I left a big sportsmanship standard for everybody, not just athletes,” Boncal said. “I hope everybody around the school has Hawk pride to maintain the standard we’ve set in school and in athletics.”