A just reward for ‘Wally’
Somewhere along the journey, sports have grown from a minor diversion to a preoccupying influence. This is a reason high school coaches have become punching bags, as if placing the needs of the team over individually underdeveloped and oversold kids is criminal.
Don’t laugh at the “criminal” thing, either, lest you’d care to peruse the growing list of coaches tasked to defend their actions to the Department of Children And Families, stemming from issues so egregious as playing time.
This is all prologue for today’s protagonist, a 36-year high school coach, who has never inspired a discouraging word. From anyone. A true modern day miracle. Try it yourself. Walk around anywhere in East Lyme or Niantic and drop a reference to “Wally,” and you get head nods and grins.
“Wally” is Paul “Wally” Christensen, the varsity boys’ soccer coach in East Lyme. Wally, who earned the nickname in high school as East Lyme's goalie (they called him "The Wall") added to his resume this past weekend, coaching the Vikings to the Class L state championship and potential No. 1 state ranking.
Even those of us who aren’t supposed to root might have had “something in our eyes” around 2:30 Saturday afternoon at Trinity Health Stadium. Turns out good things still happen to good people.
“I've been with him since sophomore year,” senior Rob Stoddard was saying after the 3-2 win over Notre Dame. “You know, Wally’s a great coach. But he’s the nicest guy.”
That still counts. Especially today. And if you're around sports long enough, you know it's not always like this. Coaches become their own affectations sometimes.
Wally Christensen’s story is very much like his dad’s. Howie Christensen is forever part of Waterford sports' “Four Horsemen” with Gerry Rousseau, Dick Cipriani and Francis X. Sweeney. Howie was similarly understated: Aw shucks. Never about him. Always the kids.
“I'm obviously coming to the end of my career,” Christensen said on the field Saturday, a moment of reflection amid the joy. “I'm hoping to do two more (seasons) but who knows what I got left. You know, my wife (Lori) has been tremendous supporting me through this whole thing. It's been a family event. My kids were ball girls when they were little. This program has been my heart and soul.”
Now Christensen was awash in the history, a this-is-your-life moment. Sports do this sometimes, the games, bus rides, distractions, Xs and Os, training sessions, last-second wins, last-second losses, bad officiating, and time away from the family all providing your life’s soundtrack.
"The soccer job opened and nobody applied," he said of an event more than three decades ago now. “It's a special program. I've been fortunate to have this team for 36 years. And we were garbage back then. I mean, we started that year teaching them how to pass. But then Milan Keser came along and started the youth program with Bill Bonavita, who was my coach and then became my assistant coach. It’s a youth program that is second to none really.”
Eighteen of them, the seniors, all conspired to give Wally the season of his life in the fall of ‘23. He eclipsed 400 wins, won another conference championship and the outright state title, further cementing Christensen’s visage on any local Rushmore of soccer.
“These kids came up from when they were five playing at Bride Brook Park. And they just evolved with it,” he said. “It’s so many parents driving kids back and forth and coaching their kids to get to this point. This is their reward as well as mine.
“I'm fortunate to have this special group even though they drove me crazy many times this year. I mean, they really did. And they know they did. But you gotta love them because of what they can do on the field. I mean, it is the best team East Lyme has ever put on the field. We’re 21-1-1. That’s unheard of. League tournament champions and now state champions. And it doesn't come often for a public school.”
Christensen, the Connecticut High School Coaches Association Coach of Year (2006) and the National Soccer Coaches Association of America Coach of the Year (2007) continues to be a pied piper for the sport in this corner of the world, too.
“I got involved in all the state organizations because the state wasn't recognizing the ECC,” he said. “East of the river. Forget you guys. That's not fair. We’ve got players that can play. We got teams that can play.”
And a coach in his dad’s image who gets to hoist the hardware again. Bravo.
This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro
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