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Fiona Cunningham is named 2022 State ‘Coach of the Year’ for Volleyball

CRHS Volleyball match with Coach Fiona looking on

January 2023

On the morning of October 31, a very exciting email from the North Carolina High School Athletic Association (NCHSAA) popped up in Fiona Cunningham’s inbox. For a beginning educator teaching sixth-grade math all day, one stray email might be easy to miss.

This one was different. Cunningham received this email in her “other” role as head volleyball coach at Cedar Ridge High School, her first role with Orange County Schools. And despite the date, no tricks, and no disguises – just a treat.

After three eventful seasons at the helm, “Coach Fiona,” as she is called by her players, learned she had been selected from among the four state championship coaches as the NCHSAA 2021-22 NFHS (National Federation of State High School Associations) State Coach of the Year for Volleyball.

When Fiona Cunningham took the reins at Cedar Ridge in spring 2020, the pandemic had just reshaped everything in schools. She was a young first-time head coach, entering Orange County fresh off a stint as assistant for state champion Chapel Hill. 

Cunningham remembers being handed a group of student-athletes with talent, strong work ethic, and hunger to reach their full potential. They were ready for a coach to believe in. The school, the team, and the coach made this decision count.

Coach Fiona has since led Cedar Ridge to a mountain of wins – three straight seasons undefeated in conference play, two conference titles, a historic 31-win season in 2021 capped by six playoff wins leading to the 3A state championship, and a return trip to the 2022 3A East Region title contest.

Cunningham is no stranger to accolades. Along the way, she has earned Central Carolina Conference Coach of the Year honors twice. Rising quickly to the top of the field, she found herself in rarefied air contending for the state award, alongside fellow championship coaches from 1A, 2A, and 4A volleyball.

The final decision rested with a Sports Department committee at NCHSAA. To them, it was clear “Coach Fiona” was unmatched by her competition. 

For Cunningham, who takes wins over state champions like Chapel Hill and Green Level with “a grain of salt,” the award was primarily about everyone else who made it possible.

“It is a huge honor to win this award,” she said. “Our team’s success is owed largely to the amazing players, parents, coaches, and administration at Cedar Ridge.”

Andy Simmons, Cedar Ridge Athletic Director, said, “Fiona has been awesome! She has an incredible work ethic, and she has taken our program to another level. The biggest thing with her is her focus on building relationships and making an impact on kids. Because of that, they really work hard for her.”

With date and location yet to be determined, the NCHSAA will hold its annual meeting near the end of the school year during which “Coach Fiona” will be honored as State Volleyball Coach of the Year along with all the other Coaches of the Year. At the same time, special athletics awards and scholarships will be given to other coaches and top performing student-athletes across North Carolina.

Dwayne Foster, Orange County Schools’ District Director of Athletics, Health and Operations stated:

Cedar Ridge is very fortunate to have a coach of Fiona Cunningham's caliber leading the volleyball program. Coach Cunningham brings a blend of experience, energy, tenacity and care to pull the best out of each member of her team. Coach has worked hard to develop a winning team culture through creating a positive energy mindset. When you watch her teams compete, it is clear that the foundation of the team's success is built on playing hard, smart, together, and for each other. Fiona Cunningham is well deserving of the NCHSAA Volleyball Coach of Year award because of her care and commitment to student-athletes on and off the court, and also to her team's success.

About Coach Cunningham:

Fiona Cunningham graduated from UNC-Asheville with a Bachelor of Science in Health and Wellness Promotion, where she played two volleyball seasons for the UNCA Bulldogs. Cunningham joined Teach For America and completed a 2-year commitment through Americorps to teach in an underserved region of North Carolina. She is a third-year math teacher at A.L. Stanback Middle School in Orange County Schools, in addition to serving as head volleyball coach since 2020 at Cedar Ridge High School, where she led the Red Wolves to the 2022 3A State Championship.

The North Carolina High School Athletic Association considers only coaches who win state championships for the sole title of “Coach of the Year.” There is one winner for every sport played across the state.