By JOHN NASH
Hour Staff Writer
NORWALK — The bloodlines that connect Chris Laughton to the Norwalk High School boys soccer program run deep. Generations deep, in fact.
Laughton’s grandfather, Ben Kirtland, and his great uncle, Grayson Kirtland, had captained the NHS boys soccer team in the early 1940s. Neither could have imagined that 70 years later, one of their descendants would follow suit, captaining the same team as the 21st century dawned on the world.
Even Laughton’s 2001 graduation from Norwalk High wouldn’t keep him from the program for long. Six years after he pulled off his NHS jersey for the last time as a player, Laughton returned as the Bears new varsity head coach.
On Friday, at New Canaan’s Dunning Field — which coincidentally is where Laughton was given his first opportunity to become a coach — Norwalk will face Fairfield Prep for the Class LL state championship.
Leading them will be a coach who bleeds the color green.
“This really has become my life,” said Laughton, whose career record since becoming Papa Bear is 85-27-16. “I think from the moment I took over, I was 23 (years old) when I got the job, but I always wanted to come back and give back to the community and definitely to Norwalk High.”
Laughton graduated from UConn and got his Masters from Sacred Heart University before landing an assistant coach’s position at New Canaan.
One year later, though, his own high school coach, Kurt Simonsen, stepped down at Norwalk.
Athletic director Wayne Mones — himself a former college soccer coach at Western Connecticut — didn’t have to look far to find a replacement.
One candidate had been born in city and came back to call it home. Plus, he just happened to be teaching social studies down the hall.
“I had known Chris from his playing days and he was always a guy you’d be impressed with,” said Mones, who recruited Laughton to play at Western Connecticut. “He’s just a Norwalk born and bred kind of guy. He bleeds green.”
A former center back for the Norwalk varsity team, one of the first things Laughton did after signing on the dotted line to coach was to create a program that peaked at the varsity level, but started when the athletes were far younger.
Thus, he said, he reached out to the Norwalk Junior Soccer Association and was welcomed with opens arms.
“When I first got the job, that was one of the first things I wanted to do,” Laughton said. “You look at all the programs in the area that are successful and that’s what they do. I always find it interesting to see what makes other people successful.”
Now, in addition to having NJSA players act in the roles of ball boys at varsity games, Laughton and the Bears also put on clinics and, during the April vacation week, host a camp that brings together present-day Bears with the players of tomorrow.
“We get to know these kids from age five on up,” Laughton said.
Some of this year’s players had actually been ball boys for Norwalk games during Laughton’s early years, the coach added.
Mones said the way Laughton has reached out to bring so many different factions of the city’s soccer world under one umbrella has been impressive.
“A lot of coaches just want to coach, but Chris understands how to manage a team and how to manage a program,” said Mones. “He manages the program from freshmen up through seniors. He’s connected to the town, and to the premier programs. It’s a big reason why he’s been tremendously successful. He’s got his finger on the pulse of each one of his players and that’s most impressive.”
Over the course of the Laughton era, Norwalk has become one of the most dominant soccer programs in the state.
For most of this season, the Bears have been ranked as the No. 1 team in the state and their 20-1-1 record and FCIAC co-championship have done little to sway the pedestal on which this season has been built.
In fact, during this state tournament run, Norwalk has been ranked as the No. 7 ranked team in the entire nation, according to the National Soccer Coaches Association of America.
In the 2010 and 2011 seasons, Norwalk had also been the top-seeded team in the FCIAC tournament, only to get knocked off by New Canaan each season in the first round of the tournament.
Laughton has helped this year’s team rebound from both of those losses and come together for a season that is now a single victory away from the school’s first soccer state title since 1966.
“These kids, we’ve been telling them all year, everything happens for a reason,” Laughton said. “What’s been told to them is hard work always pays off, but in the last two years they hadn’t seen it come to fruition. Some of the adversity and heartaches we’ve had to work though, it’s made us the team we are today and the players and the people we are today. It’s a great life lesson.”
The kind of team Norwalk has become is a tight-knit unique family, a squad represented by 13 different countries all joining together for the same goal.
And, family is a very important aspect of Laughton’s coaching, considering his lineage and the family support each has each game.
In addition to his parents, Doug and Ellen, and his 92-year-old grandmother, the two newest members of his family — wife Nanette and first-born son Grayson, who just arrived this fall — are always on hand for each and every Norwalk game, as well.
“All of them have been very supportive,” Laughton said. “All of them believe in the program and everything we’ve done. I’m so grateful for that.”
His wife’s commitment to the program became especially obvious this fall.
Two weeks before giving birth to Grayson, Mrs. Laughton made the decision that the preseason pasta party she always hosted for the team would go on as scheduled.
“This year, I was tentative about doing it, because she due in about two weeks,” Laughton explained. “But she was adamant about us doing it and doing all the cooking. She understands all of this, all the sacrifices. She’s always been there for me and she really loves the kids.”
So does Laughton.
He realized coaching would be a part of his future during his one year assisting Bill Whitaker at New Canaan. Doing it Norwalk would be a bigger bonus.
“He had to talk me into being an assistant,” Laughton said. “I didn’t know if I’d have the time. Once I got into it, started interacting with the kids and getting involved, I got sucked into it. It’s been great.”
And in his low-key way, he’s gotten the Bears to the pinnacle of the soccer world.
He’s not a yeller, not a screamer. He doesn’t motivate through fear.
He teaches his players how to play in practice and during games the Bears more often than not figure out for themselves how to end up on the winning side.
More and more people are noticing, and many of them know what it means to wear Norwalk High soccer gear.
It has made Laughton realize that this run to the state tournament isn’t just memorable to this year’s varsity team, but to the entire program, past and present.
“I’ve been so lucky with these kids,” he said. “We always talk about being a family and they know myself and their teammates, and they’re a tight-knit family. But, seeing all the guys come I played with, and coaches coming back, still wearing their Norwalk soccer jackets. Seeing how much this means to all of them means a lot.”
It’s a family story that will be handed down for generations.
Perhaps some day, Grayson Laughton — first born child of Norwalk High School soccer coach Chris Laughton — will get to tell his friends and teammates about the year his father led the Bears to another state championship.
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