Former Stonington lacrosse players Grills, Iorio, coach Deon reunited at CGA
New London — Ray LaForte and Paul Deon first came to know each other as a pair of Waterford Youth Lacrosse dads, passers-by, as LaForte would later call them.
Until, at a meeting of the organization, Deon, the successful Hand High School boys’ lacrosse coach at the time, sounded like he knew what he was talking about, LaForte said with a laugh. LaForte, the men’s lacrosse coach at the Coast Guard Academy, immediately conducted a Google search for Deon on his cell phone.
Later, LaForte, who now knew why the guy across the room sounded so convincing, bought Deon a piece of apple pie. He found out the pair were both Mets fans originally from Long Island and fond of good pizza.
On Oct. 4, 2017, Coast Guard named Deon as defensive coordinator under LaForte.
And that’s how Deon, the Stonington High School boys’ lacrosse coach from 2010-13, when the Bears earned three state tournament semifinal berths in four seasons, was reunited with two former Stonington attackmen in Tyler Grills and Will Iorio, a pair of Bears who are now ... Bears.
“I met with coach (LaForte) and he said he was bringing Paul Deon on. I said, ‘That’s awesome,’” Grills said. “I get to play for him again. He was helpful to my success in high school; he pushed me, definitely.”
“Coach Deon has had vast amounts of success,” Iorio said. “He was prepared. We were always prepared. He didn’t have to make a last-minute speech to get us prepared. … I remember preseason workouts with coach Deon, doing sprints in the parking lot.”
The two players, who have competed together in youth lacrosse since elementary school with Stonington SEALS, took different routes to play for Coast Guard, which opens its season at home Tuesday against Eastern Connecticut.
Grills, 21, a sophomore, graduated from Stonington in 2015 as the program’s all-time leading scorer, a three-time All-Eastern Connecticut Conference Small Division all-star, and prepped for a year at Marion (Ala.) Military Institute.
Having no lacrosse program in Alabama, Grills got himself up to speed enough to start three games last season as a freshman and finished with five goals and two assists.
“Athletically, I’m happy to be back on the field,” Grills said. “I had a couple friends (at Marion), we had lacrosse sticks and a bucket of balls. I tried to kind of stay up on the game. I came here last year and thought, ‘Wow. These guys are fast.' That pushed me to get better and compete.”
Iorio, a 19-year-old freshman at Coast Guard, finished his sophomore season at Stonington in 2014 with 49 goals and 52 assists for 101 points, earning second team Class S all-state honors.
After the school year, however, during which his dad Bob coached the Bears after Deon’s departure for Hand, Iorio left Stonington in favor of Christ School in Asheville, N.C. Iorio’s parents, Bob and Beth, soon followed, moving to North Carolina.
But Will Iorio remained in touch with LaForte, who was in the midst of elevating the Coast Guard program from club status to the Division III level, and he also received a note or two from his friend, Grills.
“Tyler would text me every once in a while, ‘Hey. Coast Guard,’” Iorio said with a smile this week, with the duo speaking from LaForte's office.
Iorio originally committed to play for Division I Virginia Military Institute before changing his decision to Coast Guard, where LaForte said he "jumps off the field" and is slated to start.
“I was definitely always looking to go to a service academy,” said Iorio, whose sister Ashley, a Wheeler High alum, graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 2016. “I know all about Navy and this has the same kind of feel, the same type of people. I wanted to be a part of it.”
Both cadets have older sisters whose military pursuits they’ve shadowed.
Ashley Iorio is a second lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps who is stationed at Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, Calif. She was married recently to a fellow Navy grad.
Tyler’s sister, Kelly Grills, a former all-state shortstop for the Stonington softball team, is a 2014 Coast Guard graduate and a lieutenant junior grade who is the executive officer of the Coast Guard cutter Rollin Fritch out of Cape May, N.J.
“I kind of experienced what Kelly’s going through. I think that drew me to apply,” Tyler Grills said. “The friends she made, now the success they’re having in the fleet. This was a whole new level of friendship. The friends I made down in Alabama, it’s like a bond; everyone is going through the same tough day.”
Deon, who is employed with the State of Connecticut Department of Corrections, lives in Waterford with his wife Jenny and sons Paul, 11, and Johan, 9. He’s also a veteran of the Navy, formerly stationed in Groton.
Deon was 112-48 in eight years as head coach at Stonington and Hand, also spending four years as an assistant at East Lyme.
At Stonington, which never won a state tournament game prior to his arrival, Deon led the Bears to the Class S semifinals in 2010, 2011 and 2013 and to three straight ECC Small Division championships from 2011-13.
At Hand, the Tigers made three consecutive trips to the Class M finals from 2015-17.
“An opportunity to coach at a service academy doesn’t come along every day, you don’t get to pick when the opportunity comes,” Deon said. “… Being ex-military, I know what to expect as far as that’s concerned. I know the caliber of kid. Everything has been fantastic so far. These guys are great to be around every day. They have it difficult, but that’s why they chose it.”
The energetic LaForte, meanwhile, recently completed his 19th season as assistant football coach at the academy, having served as the offensive coordinator for the last 13 seasons. He believes he sold Deon on Coast Guard by promising him autonomy with the defense, the same way head football coach Bill George has entrusted his longtime assistants.
“Him knowing I wouldn’t micromanage him, give him the space to catch a big breath of air,” LaForte said of what lured Deon away from a successful career as a high school coach. “Bill has never said what to do. That’s how you get along for 20 years. Sometimes he’ll say what’s working and sometimes what’s not working; that’s just chatter. I told Paul, ‘I’m never going to tell you what to do.’”
LaForte also lives in Waterford with wife Michelle and children Michael, 18; Mason, 15; and Madison, 11. Michael, a senior at Waterford High, was a member of the Lancers team which reached the Class S championship game last year. Michael also hopes to join his dad in playing for the academy.
Coast Guard was 10-6 last season with two New England Men’s and Women’s Athletic Conference first team all-stars, including Rookie of the Year Riley McNulty. The Bears’ schedule this season includes Wesleyan, the No. 2 team in the Division III North Region at the end of last season, No. 13 Ithaca and No. 9 Springfield.
And this marks just the fourth season Coast Guard will field a varsity team.
“We’re creating a good space. We have a nice, solid team dynamic,” LaForte said. “Preaching unselfishness to people who are not selfish is not hard.”
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