“It’s time for somebody else to sail the ship,” said Walling on Tuesday. He was taking a pause from his day job as the physical education instructor at Twin Valley Elementary School, which he will continue to do, to look back on his coaching career.
“It was time to take a break from the high intensity of coaching a high school program. But it was a tough decision. I didn’t realize how difficult it was going to be when I told the girls after their last game. It was bittersweet.”
Walling will leave behind a sterling record. He began varsity coaching in 1999 at what was then Wilmington High School, taking over a top-notch program that had been built by former coach Ken Nieters. During the past two decades, he compiled an 183-103-14 record, taking teams to seven state championship games and winning six of them. His Wilmington High School teams won Division 4 titles in 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, and 2003. After Wilmington and Whitingham merged to create Twin Valley, the Wildcats lost in the D3 championship game in 2004 and won a D3 title in 2007.
“There’s a ton of good memories,” said Walling. “You never forget the feeling of winning a state championship. When that buzzer goes off, that feeling of joy is one I’ll never forget.”
When asked about any favorite teams, he said “They’re all special in their own way.”
But he did mention the 2004 team that lost in the state finals as one of his favorites.
“I was really proud of that team, even though we lost in the finals,” said Walling. “That team really surprised me with what they did. We went 16-2. That was the first year of Twin Valley and the first year we played in D3. To challenge for a championship in our first year of playing up, that was special.”
Walling also had fond memories of his last title team, in 2007. That team claimed the championship with a thrilling overtime win against Oxbow. “It was late in OT, we had a corner kick. Devin Spirka was able to tuck it into the goal for the win. It was Twin Valley’s first D3 title. We were still newbies at that point.”
He added that he was blessed with some phenomenal teams and athletes. “To play in seven championship games and win six of them, that’s amazing.”
Walling-coached teams also won seven Marble Valley League titles and he won numerous coach of the year awards from the MVL, the Vermont Soccer Coaches Association, and the National Soccer Coaches Association of America. In 2003, he was named the NSCAA New England regional coach of the year.
Even though he won’t be coaching varsity soccer again anytime soon, Walling still plans to stay heavily involved with soccer, but at the youth level. He has a young son, and feels he can still contribute to soccer in the community. Three years ago he took over the soccer program for Valley Youth Sports, and has plans to build up the quality of play. To that end, he has taken the program back into the John Werner League, which includes teams from southern Vermont, eastern New York, and western Massachusetts. Valley Youth left that league a few years ago, but Walling felt it was important to get back into the higher level of play.
Walling said he also has toyed with the idea of returning to high school soccer to officiate games. But his wife Nikki made him think twice about that. “I told my wife, ‘Maybe I’ll get a referee’s license.’ She said, ‘Are you crazy? Look at the crowd up on the hill screaming at those refs. You don’t want that.’”
As for leaving the high school team, Walling said he felt the program was in a good place, and that he felt his last game was a good example of that. Even though the Wildcats lost 3-1 in a hard-fought quarterfinal matchup with the eventual state champion, he was satisfied with the results and with this year’s team.
“That Arlington game was as good as it gets if you can’t go out on your last game and win,” said Walling. “That group played their tails off, they worked hard, and stuck to the game plan.”
Walling also hoped some of the off-field results would be some of the most lasting results for his now former players.
“It’s the lessons off the field that you hope take hold: accountability, responsibility, and how you represent yourself, your team, and your community. Hopefully, the kids want to be part of the team because of the standards that we set. It’s great when you win, but you appreciate those things even more.”