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    Sunday, October 02, 2022

    Family, fútbol remain the focus of NFA head coach

    NFA boys soccer coach Robert Briones calls out instructions to his team against Bacon Academy in ECC boys soccer Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022 at Fontaine Field in Norwich. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
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    NFA boys soccer coach Robert Briones huddles his team before facing Bacon Academy in ECC boys soccer Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022 at Fontaine Field in Norwich. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
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    Norwich ― From living under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in Chile to coaching the Norwich Free Academy Wildcats, Robert Briones has never been far away from a soccer ball.

    His passion for the game began at the age of five. Briones recalled everyone he knew played soccer in South America, specifically, the southern portion of Chile where he grew up. “The most popular sport” in the country captivated Briones in ways cross country could not when he was in middle school.

    “Sports were a great outlet for me,” Briones said.

    Now, 54-years-old and a father of three, Briones uses his lifelong experience in the game, and 28 years of high school coaching, to share that passion with his children and the players he coaches.

    Briones said, while in Chile, it did not matter if teammates agreed with Pinochet’s regime or not. They were there for a common goal that was not impacted by outside politics.

    “For me, soccer, what I can remember is being in so many locker rooms,” Briones said, “It’s a sport that can unify people.”

    This remained true when he and his family moved to Santiago ― the capital of Chile ― in his freshman year of high school. After playing at four different high schools, Briones said he was selected to a local semi-pro team, but was forced to choose between his soccer and academic careers.

    He said his parents emphasized the importance of school while he was growing up, so he chose academics. He earned a paralegal degree while in Chile before moving to Pomfret in 1989 at 21 years old, where he earned both his undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Connecticut.

    But he still wanted to play soccer. So, Briones looked for opportunities in nearby Rhode Island and Massachusetts. A local coach suggested Briones should try out for the state team ― Adult Select for the State of Massachusetts ― which incorporated players from colleges and semi-pro clubs.

    Not only did he make the squad, he was named captain, and said he was able to play with players with a wide-range of ethnic backgrounds. He recalled nothing but “great memories” of playing with a ethnically-mixed players. He remembered the goalkeeper hailed from Holland.

    “Soccer people, it’s a soccer family,” Briones said. “We’re able to all blend together.”

    He spent 1995 and 1996 as the head coach of the Putnam High School team while he finished his graduate degree. Once his degree was completed, he applied for a school counselor position at Norwich Free Academy.

    During his job interview, he was asked about his interest in the open head soccer coach position. Previously unaware of the opportunity, Briones took both jobs in one interview and has since been at the helm of Wildcats soccer.

    “I’m a very, very grateful person and I say this in a very humble way because this will be my 26th season here,” Briones said as he retold the story.

    Briones, a 2013 inductee into the Southeast Connecticut Soccer Hall of Fame, was named the state’s “Outstanding Coach of the Year” in boys soccer by the Connecticut High School Coaches Association in 2019. Briones said he does not like to sit on his previous accomplishments, like his team’s run of three-straight undefeated seasons with consecutive semifinal appearances, especially since they have yet to win a state title.

    Instead, Briones said he finds the real satisfaction in impacting the lives of his student athletes. As a school counselor at the school, Briones has an unique opportunity to connect with players on and off the field.

    “I always try to emphasize to them you are a student athlete,” Briones said. “First you are a student, and then you are an athlete.”

    The varsity team’s assistant coach, Alex Cabezas, said he owes a lot to Briones.

    Born in Ecuador, Cabezas said he came to the United States as a 16 year old with no grasp of the English language. He said Briones was the only one who would speak to him in Spanish, which helped his transition to NFA in his senior year. He only attended the school and played soccer for that year.

    “When I first came here, and I always tell him this, it was like a light in the dark,” Cabezas said.

    Cabezas said he started at left-mid for Briones and scored double-digit goals with a handful of assists as a senior. The heartbreak of losing in the quarterfinals to Xavier on penalty kicks that season did not keep Cabezas away, as he’s been an assistant under Briones for the last 14 years. He shares the same coaching philosophy as his former head coach in what he called a “beautiful friendship.”

    “The satisfaction of just seeing these guys succeeding in life and being good people more than anything,” Cabezas said. “To me, it’s worth it all the way.”

    Their players recognized the passion each coach brings to the field every day, whether it be through instruction or conversation.

    “Our coaches love to talk soccer,” senior goalkeeper Zach Redanz-Swett said.

    In between perfecting penalty kicks and commenting on cross-kicks, both Briones and Cabezas relate their time playing with players of different cultural backgrounds to their current team. Currently, the NFA team has players with ties to Peru, Guatamala, Haiti and Ecuador.

    “For us, it kinda connects Norwich as a whole,” Redanz-Swett said, one of four senior captains on the team. “We get to see all different walks of life.”

    Most of the team grew up and played in the Norwich area before attending NFA. While the current team bonds over weekly pasta dinners, midfielder William Ambruso remembers different menus at cookouts during youth soccer.

    “When we played for Norwich youth, a lot of the kids on the team were Hispanic,” Ambruso recalled. “So when we would do cookouts, it was a lot more Hispanic food.”

    The talk of the team has been less about food of late, and more about the World Cup. It’s an unusual year for the event, as the climate of this year’s host city, Qatar, has forced tournament to be played in the fall instead of the summer. It’s slated to start on Nov. 20 and will run through Dec. 18.

    Redanz-Swett and Ambruso are both rooting on the U.S. this year, but that can’t be said for the rest of their teammates. Rood Apolon’s home country of Haiti did not make the tournament this year, so he said he’s pulling for England because he is a fan of Manchester United in the Premier League.

    Erik Portillo’s family descends from Peru, which also did not qualify for the World Cup, so he’s got a dual rooting interest in the U.S. and Argentina.

    Chile’s national team did not qualify either, but Briones’ wife has already decided who he is pulling for this year.

    “I don’t have an option at home,” Briones explained. “I have to go for Brazil.”

    His wife, Regiane “Regi” Briones is from Brazil. Robert explained how the family visits her family down there when they can and recently came back from a 42-day stay in the country.

    During the visit, Briones and his two sons Diego, 28, and Felipe, 6, met players from the most popular team in the country “Clube de Regatas do Flamengo” and even bought jerseys.

    Both sons had opportunities to attend soccer and academic schools in the country during the various extended visits. While Diego is currently in a doctorate program at the University of Virginia, he learned Portuguese and soccer skills in multiple extended visits to Chile and Brazil as a child. More recently, Felipe attended six weeks of soccer school in Brazil and is already fluent in Portuguese, the country’s national language.

    “We’re not better just because we have this opportunity, we’re just very lucky to have this opportunity to be exposed to a different culture,” Briones explained.

    Editor’s Note: This story was updated to correct the name of Briones’ first head coaching job, to correct Cabezas’ tenure length at NFA, to correct the spelling of Regiane Briones’ nickname and to correct the spelling of players’ names.

    k.arnold@theday.com

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