Bears know where they’re going (to college)
By BOB BIRGE
NORWALK — Next season, the University of Connecticut men’s soccer team will have a second player from Norwalk High School on its roster.
Santiago Muriel signed a National Letter of Intent on Monday to play at UConn, joining best friend Nicholas Zuniga, who is completing his freshman season for the Huskies.
Muriel was one of three Norwalk student-athletes to officially commit to Division I schools on Monday. He was joined by teammate Andrew Melitsanopoulos (Manhattan) and swimmer Stephanie Czulewicz (Central Connecticut).
With Muriel becoming the second Norwalk player in as many years to sign with UConn, coach Chris Laughton was asked if the school is becoming a pipeline for the Huskies, who host New Mexico on Sunday in the third round of the NCAA Tournament.
“That would be a great pipeline to develop,” Laughton said. “They’re one of the top teams in the nation. If we can continue that connection and keep sending guys up there, it’s a win-win for UConn and also the city of Norwalk.”
Czulewicz also will be staying in state to continue her swimming career, choosing Central Connecticut over Southern Connecticut.
She is one of the top swimmers in the FCIAC, earning all-league honors this season in the 200 IM and all-state laurels in the 400 freestyle relay, 100 freestyle and 200 IM. Last year, Czulewicz was all-FCIAC in the 500 freestyle.
“I just felt more at home at Central,” she said. “It was a really great experience. I’m excited to start off in a new environment next year. I just had more of a sense of family at Central with the team.”
Another factor in Central’s favor is its Division I status (Southern is a Division II school).
“Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve always wanted to swim Division I in college,” she said.
Muriel actually may have sold himself short as he initially looked at NJIT, Columbia and Lafayette — programs that aren’t close to UConn, which he considered a “reach” school. The Huskies finally became interested in Muriel after he attended a camp this past June.
“After the camp, they loved me and that’s when we started talking,” he said. “At the end of camp, they said they wanted me, like right away, so it was a quick thing. I think the max we talked was two weeks before I committed. They said they wanted me now.”
Muriel is excited about the prospect of once again playing with Zuniga.
“He’s influenced me to become a better player,” Muriel said. “When I got the offer from UConn, he was so excited. He knows — and I know — that I’ll be a good fit. I can’t wait.”
Melitsanopoulos will be following in the footsteps of older brothers Paul (Western Connecticut, 2008) and Dean (Brown, 2009), who also played college soccer. Paul Melitsanopoulos currently is the Bears’ goaltending coach.
Once he got to know the coaches at Manhattan, Melitsanopoulos chose the Jaspers over Fordham, Fairfield, Bucknell and Colgate, saying it was an easy decision.
In 2011, Manhattan earned the No. 6 seed in the Metro Atlantic Conference playoffs and advanced to the championship game for only the second time in program history. This season, the Jaspers slipped back to a 3-12-1 record, but Melitsanopoulos sees a program on the rise under third-year coach Ashley Hammond.
“I want to try and be a big component to the rise of Manhattan College,” he said.
Laughton will have two more players playing Division I soccer next year, which will make four overall since 2010. Zuniga’s other brother, Jake, is a sophomore at Fairfield.
“I think it’s a testament to the hard work these guys have put in over the four years here and that we’re doing something right in the sense of developing guys not only on a high school level but the premier (club) programs they’re coming from and also the city of Norwalk on the youth level,” he said. “It’s shows that everybody is doing their part and it’s working.”
Muriel and Melitsanopoulos will wear a Norwalk uniform for the final time on Friday when the Bears face Fairfield Prep in the Class LL state championship game. Norwalk is seeking the second title in program history and first since 1966.
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