Coaches give back by coming back
Published 1:02 am, Wednesday, July 21, 2010
For more than half a century, Staples High School has been considered by locals to be a true "center of excellence" in every category of secondary school education.
The 1950s were an era of amazing innovation at Westport's high school which in those days accepted students from Wilton and Weston. Staples was one of the first public school in the country to offer Advanced Placement courses, experimental English courses, elective courses and specialty classes in African, China and Japan studies as well as classes in Human Sexuality. In 1958, the new "California-style" campus with initially six and then nine buildings in a college campus configuration facilitated openness and allowed the administration and faculty under the leadership of then Principal Jim Calkins to "put the student first." His mantra was, "Kids, you've got a friend here at high school." Parents and students alike loved and appreciated their high school. It fostered an immense loyalty and dedication to the school that continues to this day.
Also in the '50s, Staples was one of the first schools to offer college guidance counseling to graduating seniors. The drama and music programs, also started in the '50s by way of the Orphenians and The Staples Players, are widely respected. For years, Staples actors and singers have won numerous national awards for their performances and many have gone on to successful professional careers in the arts. A fact that relates to this story is that the recently retired Alice Lipson, who has directed the Orphenians for 22 years (replacing the venerable founder Dr. George Weigel), will be succeeded by 2002 Staples graduate, Justin Miller. Miller will be only the third director in the group's history.
But this article is about another special legacy at Staples that relates to its storied athletic history and the amazing number of graduates who have returned to their alma mater to coach various sports teams. It's certainly rare if not unique for more than one or two graduates to return to his or her high school to coach. But at Staples, we don't do anything in a small way. Fully 19 graduates are now coaching different sports teams at Staples. This must surely be some sort of record.
Over the last 60 years, Staples athletes have won so many county, state and national championships in so many sports that it would be too difficult to list them all in this article. Standing out is the current boys volleyball record of 101 consecutive victories over eight years that includes 8 out of the last 10 state championships.
There are only a couple of high schools in the country that can match Staple's 12 state soccer championships, the most recent of which came just last fall. The boys soccer team has won 26 county and 36 division championships over the years in addition to four Ralph King Cups, which was begun in 2000 to honor the school with the most wins in a season.
In football, softball, basketball, swimming, gymnastics, baseball, track & field, cross country, tennis, golf, hockey, wrestling, field hockey and more recently lacrosse, Staples athletes have succeeded at the very highest levels year after year. And all of this success is being accomplished at one of the finest academic and creative public high schools in the country.
Current Staples Principal John Dodig said he is not surprised with the alumni/coach statistic. "It has everything to do with the pride people feel in their high school. This place feels like home to so many former students, many of whom have returned to teach as well as coach."
Dodig said he feels the quality of the education is a direct response to the high quality of teachers and coaches at Staples. Echoing that feeling is long time Athletic Director Marty Lisevick who said there were only six graduates coaching when he started at Staples in 2000.
"I'm not surprised in the least. Our coaches understand the school and the traditions here. They also understand the athletic program because for the most part, they were part of that program when they were students," Lisevick said.
One of the most influential people in both the development of the athletic program at Staples and not surprisingly, a major influence in the lives of many of the 19 current coaches, is Paul Lane, the legendary former head football coach.
Coach Lane, as he's still known today to hundreds of Staples graduates, explained, "The tone for the athletic program was set back in the '50s by Frank Dornfeld, Ginny Parker and Albie Loeffler. They wouldn't cut anybody if they didn't have to. They set up programs for students to compete and do the very best they could. Evidently, many of their athletes emulated their approach and still use it today."
Another former Staples athlete is Jack Mitchell who was a first-hand participant in the athletic programs set up in the early days of Wrecker sports. Mitchell, who graduated in 1957, was emphatic when he recalled his days as a Staples athlete. He had quite an athletic career at Staples: captain of basketball for three years and co-captain of baseball and football in his senior year.
"It was an awful lot of fun; the center of my life. Sports gave me great confidence to go on to college and to success in every other aspect of my life," Mitchell said.
Mitchell was especially influenced by Loeffler and Lane, who later became Mitchell's close personal friends.
"Their high values inspired me and paralleled those of my family. Academics and sports were a key foundation for my life," Mitchell said.
There are currently 19 Staples graduates who are presently coaching at the high school. They are: Ned Batlin, assistant boys lacrosse; Bruce Betts, boys volleyball; Jen Cirino, assistant softball; Karen DeFelice, assistant girls basketball; Mac DeVito, assistant football; Kris Hrisovulos, boys tennis; Andrew Lawrence, cross country, assistant boys indoor and outdoor track/field; Laddie Lawrence, boys cross country, indoor and outdoor track/field; Kevin Lippert, wrestling; Paul McNulty, boys lacrosse; Chris O'Dell, boys freshman soccer; Tom Owen, boys golf, girls skiing; Brian Parmelee, boys JV volleyball; Lindsay Ross, assistant gymnastics; Nikki Ross, birl's JV soccer, assistant girls lacrosse; Theo Sullivan, girls water polo; Courtney Wall, assistant softball; Dan Woog, boys soccer; and Wayne Wehmhoff, boys hockey.
So where do we start? Unfortunately, space doesn't allow a full biography on each of the 19 graduates who are presently coaching at Staples so we will begin with the names of each current Staples graduate/coach and then profile of a few of their stories. Presented in four installments, this series of articles will profile just a handful of these coaches who have returned to Westport to give back to their school system.
Laddie Lawrence is the dean of the current coaching staff. A 1964 graduate, Lawrence had a stellar track career at Staples. As a senior, he was captain of the cross country, indoor and outdoor track teams.He was state champion in the 440 and 600 and with teammate and fellow Staples coach (boys lacrosse) Paul McNulty in the 4 x 400 relay.
As a head coach, his records just build up and up over the years. Lawrence has been head coach of the track and field team for 34 years, taking over from his coach, Paul Lane. He has been head coach of the indoor track team for 41 years now and cross country coach for 38. His teams have won 32 state championships and been runners up 22 times.
"As early as my high school years I knew I wanted to coach. I worked as a counselor at Camp Mahackeno and that sort of started it off," Lawrence said. "I feel like Jimmy Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life. The Westport and Staples communities have been so wonderful to me and my family."
In 1991, when Lawrence's wife became ill, friends from Staples and all over Westport got together and raised $80,000 to cover her medical costs.
Lawrence is especially proud of his son Andrew (class of 2004), who is currently assistant track/field coach with a focus on the pole vault.
A 1982 Staples graduate, Karen DeFelice was a standout three-sport athlete. Coming out of Long Lots junior high, DeFelice played varsity basketball, volleyball and softball for all three years. In fact, in basketball, she was All-FCIAC and captain in her senior year; in volleyball, All-State as a senior and captain both junior and senior years; and in softball, captain in her senior year.
Her exploits at Staples earned her a full scholarship to Providence College, where she focused on volleyball and getting her degree in special education. She was captain of the Profidence team that in her senior year won the Big East Championship and received an NCAA bid. Sadly, the Friars ran into a powerful BYU squad in the first round, but for DeFelice "it was a most exciting experience for me."
After graduating with her degree in hand, DeFelice returned to the Westport school system as a substitute teacher. Her first coaching position was in volleyball in Weston and then at Notre Dame. When she came home to Staples, her first job was as girls freshman basketball coach and also JV softball.
In her fifth year at Staples, DeFelice moved up to assistant girls basketball coach, working with long-time coach Ed Huydick.
DeFelice said, "I've learned a tremendous amount as a coach. It's very different than being a player. We're very proud of our teams -- there is no quit in our girls."
While her proudest moment as a coach was when Staples won the state championship, she said her greatest success is 24 years of teaching special education at her alma mater.
"It's nice to continue the history; an honor to wear the blue and white," said DeFelice, who is married to Bill During, a football legend from the Staples Class of 1965.
The current varsity soccer head coach has Staples blue and white coursing through his veins. In fact, Dan Woog is the unofficial Staples High School historian, having written the 2005 book, Staples High School: 120 years of A+ Education, which chronicles the growth and achievements of Staples from 1884 to 2005.
Woog's story as both a student and a coach at Staples is the perfect definition of giving back to one's high school. His graduation year was 1971, the first one without any students from Weston attending Staples. This is important for a number of reasons, but mostly as it relates to the soccer program.
Most people don't know that it was because of the Weston students attending Staples in the '50s and '60s that Albie Loeffler started a soccer team in the first place. In those days, Weston kids didn't have any junior high or local football so they all played soccer. When they moved up to high school, Loeffler saw the potential and started up the now-famous soccer team for which he and Staples are so proud.
Woog bridged the gap in those transition years and learned his craft from the best, Loeffler. The program that started small at Staples was expanded by Loeffler to a local recreational soccer program in town. In fact, Woog started playing soccer in that recreational league that Albie started; the first of its kind in suburbia.
Assisted by Jim Kuhlman, Loeffler developed a powerful first-class soccer program that recently celebrated its 50th year of success at Staples.
Woog recalled, "Albie was able to instill in everyone a love for the game; its creativity; its simplicity; and its global importance."
Woog admited freely that he was not a star on the Staples teams back then: "I sat on the bench!"
Along with Loeffler's impact, Woog was highly influenced by another Wrecker soccer star, Chip Young ('68) who went on to All-American status at Brown University.
"Chip was one of my idols," Woog said. Young got Dan interested in attending Brown. While there, Woog wrote extensively about Brown soccer for the school paper, which propelled him toward present journalistic career.
Not expecting to return to Westport necessarily, Woog did just that when he helped start the Under-14 travel team in 1975. He was also instrumental is starting the Westport Soccer Association and became boys freshman coach and then assistant to Jeff Lea, who had succeeded Loeffler. When Lea stepped down in 2003, Woog became only the third head soccer coach in Staples history.
Last fall, the Staples boys won the first state championship under Woog to go along with three FCIAC championships under his tutelage.
"Our approach is simple: work hard and have fun. And it seems to work." Woog continued, "I want all the kids to have joy in what they do; to make this experience that is Staples a special time."
John M. Lupton was born in Westport and graduated from Staples in 1966. He was president of the senior class and a member of the varsity basketball team (he mostly sat on the bench...).