NORWALK -- Considering all that Nick Zuniga has accomplished on the pitch over the last four years, Norwalk's Chris Laughton doesn't think there are many coaches around the FCIAC clamoring for the star forward to return--if he ever could.
Certainly not after Zuniga broke the hearts of many of those same coaches, time and again, and helped revive the Bears' soccer program into a perennial contender.
"I think a lot of people are going to be glad he's graduating this year. I mean that in the best sense possible," said Laughton, Norwalk's fifth-year head coach. "A lot of coaches really respected him for the way he carried himself on the field and off the field.
"Clearly they respected the way he played because pretty much every team we played had a game plan on how to stop him, or at least be aware of where he is at all times."
Moving forward, Zuniga is unlikely to receive that same attention--at least in the early going--but the competition is sure to get much more challenging. That's because Zuniga will play for one of the premier programs in the country: Division-I University of Connecticut.
Zuniga first came in contact with the Huskies prior to the start of his senior year at Norwalk and made his first official visit to the Storrs campus late last month. He indicated that the warm reception he received there played a vital role in his decision.
"When I went on my college visit, the main thing that captured me to come to the school was that everyone was friendly. They were all welcoming to me," said Zuniga, who also received an offer from Central Connecticut State University. "The coaches are nice, the players were cool to hang out with. The school itself, I really liked the campus."
Early in the recruiting process, the interest from the Huskies was modest. But that changed after they watched Zuniga play--in person, for the first time--at the Disney College Showcase in Florida just after Christmas.
"I mainly kept calling them and emailing them for them to come watch me play. It was mainly me reaching out to them," he said.
At the tournament, Zuniga set himself apart, scoring seven goals in just four games.
"They saw a lot of my goals there. That's what I do," Zuniga said. "I'm a goal scorer."
"They were very impressed with the way he played," Laughton added. "They thought he could definitely fit into their system up there and contribute in the next few years."
At Norwalk, that's exactly what Zuniga did.
For some players, the added attention that Zuniga routinely received might have elicited a dropoff in production. But the Bears forward proved to be the exception.
As a senior last fall, Zuniga ranked among the top scorers in the conference with 17 goals and 10 assists. He scooped up numerous honors, in being named to the All-New England, All-State and All-FCIAC teams.
"Most of the teams that we played knew who he was and he was either man marked or at times, double- or triple-teamed," Laughton said. "And he still had a great year in terms of scoring goals and setting people up."
Longtime Staples head coach Dan Woog, who has guided the Wreckers to four conference championships in the last six seasons, noted that Zuniga was worthy of drawing plenty of attention.
"We generally don't man mark anybody. But we certainly were aware of him wherever he was on the field," Woog said.
In joining UConn, Zuniga will be part of a program that went 19-3-3 (5-1-2 in Big East) last season and reached the quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament. The Huskies were ranked No. 1 nationally for five straight weeks, beginning Sept. 20. That all factored into Zuniga's decision.
"It does mean a little bit more," he said. "It's going to make me work even harder to get to that top level."
With Zuniga commanding his team on the pitch in 2011 as a captain, Norwalk enjoyed its own share of success. Despite the graduation of nine seniors from the following year, including Zuniga's brother, Jake (now a midfielder at Fairfield University), the Bears finished with the FCIAC's best record (13-1-2) for the second straight year and reached the state semifinals for the first time since 2004.
With the drastic roster changes, Zuniga shifted positions, from defense to forward, and yet the Bears rarely missed a beat. They outscored opponents 62-22.
Laughton noted that Zuniga's versatility peaked the Huskies' interest.
"He can play almost every position on the field. Even though they see him as a guy that's going to play forward for them, they also like the fact that they're bringing in a kid that isn't pigeonholed to one position," said Laughton, who played for the Huskies in 2001 as a defender.
"He did whatever Chris asked of him. He did it with a smile," Woog added. "Wherever he was on the field, we tried to stay away from him."
Zuniga knows that it will take a lot to gain that same level of respect from opponents in college.
"The game that they play is much faster than high school soccer," he said. "I'm going to have to increase in everything--every part of soccer. It's just another level. It can't really be compared to high school."