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Mark Zurlis was a stalwart linebacker for the North Haven football squad from 2009 to 2011. After coaching defense on the varsity team for the past several years, Mark was promoted to co-head coach of the Indians’ JV team for the 2018 season. (Photo courtesy of Mark Zurlis )
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When you think about the North Haven football team, it’s more than just wins and losses that come to mind. It’s all about tradition, community, and family. That’s why former standout player Mark Zurlis was welcomed back as a coach shortly after he graduated and continues to rise up the ranks in Head Coach Anthony Sagnella’s program. This year, Mark, who’s been a defensive coach for the varsity squad the past six years, joins Chris Grillo as co-head coach of North Haven’s JV team.
“I think it’s an awesome thing. We always tried to extend our program into the community, youth program, and into the Alumni Association with things that we do. Mark happens to be a part of all of it. He came up through our youth program, played for us, and was a captain,” Sagnella says. “As a teenager, you could tell he had an aptitude for the game, because he had a deeper understanding of the schemes we were executing. He became a coach on the field on both sides of the ball starting at the end of his sophomore year.”
Mark earned a wealth of accolades for his play as a linebacker with the Indians. Mark made the All-SCC Team in his junior year, when he finished the season with 106 tackles. He did even better as a senior by making 133 tackles to go with three sacks and three interceptions. Mark was an All-SCC, All-State, and All-Area selection in his senior season, as well as a member of the Walter Camp and Levi Jackson All-Star teams.
“I always enjoyed the defensive side of the ball, because I enjoyed hitting people, instead of getting hit,” Mark says. “I just had a good feel for the game. It was second nature to me, which is why I always loved that side of the game.”
After graduating from North Haven in 2012, Mark elected to do a postgraduate year, although he suffered a shoulder injury that abruptly ended his career. Shortly thereafter, Mark contacted Sagnella about helping out with the high-school team. In the fall of 2013, Mark came back to the Indians as a coach.
“Defense was my specialty, so I started off getting a feel for how North Haven football is run from the coaching aspect, and then I was working with the linebackers. As the years progressed, I became more involved and, in my second or third year, I started calling the defense for freshman games, and I’ve just been moving up the chain,” Mark says. “I was working with the varsity linebackers, ended up running the defense on JV games, and then, over the last two years, I was full-time varsity linebackers’ and blocking backs’ coach and coaching the defense for JV on Saturdays. This year, I’m co-JV head coach.”
Since Mark started coaching when he was just 19, he naturally had to deal with some challenges. However, Mark worked through them to get where he is today.
“It was tough, because that senior class was sophomores when I played. I needed to transition from being their friend to their coach, and that was the most difficult thing. It took me years to get used to that change,” says Mark. “Now, that doesn’t affect me much, because these kids never played with me. I’m still very relatable, because I’m so young, and like that, because I think when you develop a good relationship with the kids, it builds trust. But definitely, figuring out the balance of being a friend versus a coach to the kids was a challenge.”
Now that he has several years of experience under his belt, Mark is focused on serving as a role model for North Haven’s players.
“I feel like I have a good relationship with the kids,” Mark says. “Football meant the world to me. It was an escape, and I couldn’t wait to get to football practice. It was a home away from home. I like to take that same approach to coaching. I’m a very hands-on kind of guy.”
Mark says that he and Grillo complement each other well as co-coaches of North Haven’s JV team. Mark is looking forward to working alongside his fellow program alum this fall.
“He sees things that I don’t see, and I see things he doesn’t necessarily see, so the kids get a lot of good information,” says Mark. “He’s very organized, and we don’t step on each other’s toes. He’s an open guy, and he’s awesome with the kids.”
Sagnella is happy to have Mark on his coaching staff. He appreciates that Mark wants to give back to a program that gave Mark so much.
“I think it all comes full circle when the players reach out to me and ask to be a part of the program,” Sagnella says. “While they’re here, so many people are giving of their time, money, or both to make the experience the best it can be for the players. So, to have a player be on the receiving end of that, give back, help another generation—that’s what makes North Haven a great community and football a great game.”
While Mark has rapidly climbed the coaching ladder in North Haven, he doesn’t view his promotion to JV coach as a stepping stone for a bigger position elsewhere. Mark says that he plans to continue coaching football in his hometown for the long haul.
“I’m a North Haven guy. I always wanted to be a North Haven guy forever. I can see myself staying at North Haven at some capacity. I don’t think I’d have the same drive if I had to move out somewhere,” says Mark. “I like the team, the town, and the community North Haven football has. I can’t see myself coaching somewhere else. North Haven is home to me.”
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