Entering his fourth season as head coach of the Norwalk High School (CT) boys’ soccer team, Chris Laughton, a former player for the Bears in the late 90’s, has good reason to be more than cautiously optimistic. With a full three years of seasoned experience himself, he guides a team that has considerable potential, one that maintains a healthy balance between veteran leadership and exciting young talent.
Norwalk, which made a surprising run to the Connecticut State Class LL Quarterfinals in 2007 before losing to perennial power Farmington, spent the majority of last season underachieving, showing glimpses of brilliance yet struggling to defend the goal consistently against even average offensive teams. There porous defense led to a regular season punctuated by disappointment and an eventual state tournament loss to Greenwich High, 1-0.
Determined to erase the subpar performances of 2008, Laughton has redirected his team psychologically, returning to the basics-not soccer fundamentals, but rather life’s core ideals. He has spent the off-season driving home the concept of unadulterated and pure hard work, and he has pushed the players to realize that past success on any level, whether it be in high school or on the premiere pitch, provides them with not a single guarantee.
So, the march toward winning begins from the bottom up, and Norwalk seems to now understand that a successful program, one that can sustain maximum effort on a daily basis and one that expects more from itself even on its best days, must appreciate its tradition. Laughton, a coach mature well beyond his years in both his knowledge of the game and his intricate perceptions of human nature, has surrounded himself and players with the program’s history.
Throughout the late ’80s and up through the mid-90s, Norwalk possessed adequate talent yet never found a way to crack into the highly competitive FCIAC. However, with ten wins in the fall of 1998, the program began to change, resulting in a regular season and league tournament championship in 2002 and both a league and state finals appearance in 2004, Norwalk became a well-recognized name across Connecticut and a regular member of the state’s top ten.
Now, aside from reminding his players that an endless number of players came before them who sacrificed so much to let this current crop of athletes play with the respect and reputation they do, Laughton has brought former coaches and players back as members of his staff, all with the intent of making the experience each player has one that is valuable and rich. He knows that to stay motivated a team needs an entrenched reason, one that resonates in their souls.
As Norwalk takes the field this fall, the focus on excellence in training and a simple philosophy of trying to play their best each moment will serve as the backbone for what they all hope is their coming of age. Gone is relying on reputation and different players’ individual accomplishments. Instead, each athlete is a cog in the machine, no one more important than the other, and each seeing that the team’s success depends upon their true commitment to the vision Laughton has presented.
Getting young men to see the power of the past and to believe completely in a singular vision is an accomplishment in and of itself, yet Laughton, the ceaselessly motivated teacher he is, refuses to let that be the only goal. He sees clearly that his team expects results, and fortunately he has the talent to make some noise.
Despite the loss of Tyler Collins, a sweeper back headed for Division I American University, and all-league standout midfielder Wilfredo Arbieto, Norwalk owns more than enough to compete with nearly any team it encounters.
Norwalk is led by four-year starter and tri-captain Andres Torres, a fast and crafty forward with a penchant for finishing goals in big moments, and tri-captain Danny Quintero, a dynamic defender who should solidify the once-questionable back of the Bears’ defense.
Torres will get considerable help up front, with junior Chris Puente, a three-year starter, and Junior Nic Zuniga feeding him dangerous balls. Surrounding them will be a solid caste of skilled, quick athletes who, if dedicated to performing their roles, can make Norwalk an offensive problem in each match.
Senior tri-captain Jake Zuniga will join Quintero in the back to solve the communication and execution issues of last year. All of the other positions across the pitch will be hotly contested, which results in a hungry group of starters supported by a deep bench capable of subbing in and keeping the level of play moving.
In the end, the opportunity exists for Norwalk to again compete for a league crown. However, the only way the change occurs is if this team decides to focus on all the right ideas, and think little about chasing a trophy. They must revise what they were and believe in the message their coach sends. They must defend tenaciously and attack intelligently. They must wear their jerseys with pride, truly appreciating the players who wore those same shirts years ago.
If they do, this team may just finally come of age.
Personal experience and observation as a former head coach at Norwalk High School