It was 9:15 p.m., and the game clock noted just a few ticks past a minute to go in the third quarter.
And yet last Friday night, for the first time all season – almost eight full games in to a campaign that has been anything but what the Desert Vista coaching staff and players had planned on – all was right in the world of Thunder football.
Desert Vista’s Cody Sokol had just hit do-everything back Anders Battle for a six-yard touchdown to tie last Friday’s game against Chandler at 15-all. It was – unbelievably – Sokol’s first touchdown pass of his senior year after missing most of the season with a fractured bone in his right foot.
Two plays later, it was Sokol’s quarterback understudy, Sean Coffinger, who went back to his rightful spot at linebacker, making a tackle on the first play of the Wolves’ ensuing drive.
“That’s how this season was supposed to play out,” Desert Vista coach Dan Hinds said, looking beyond the final score – a 29-22 victory after Chandler scored with two seconds left – to articulate the confidence his team had, with their heads held high, after the game had ended. “It’s unfortunate that it’s week eight that it happened. But it is what it is at this point, so we’re going to take advantage of some of it, get some guys back, and hopefully ride some momentum going into the end.”
That’s been the nature of the 2009 football season for Desert Vista. One event after another, coupled with the state’s most daunting schedule, has put the Thunder into a position where at 2-6 overall, a two-game season is ready to start all over again.
For Sokol, the wunderkind quarterback who thrust himself into the starting spot last season only to see the majority of his senior year go up in smoke against his team’s biggest rival, now is the chance to prove to himself, his team, the opponents who surely underestimate him, and any college program still willing to take a flyer, that he’s back and ready to roll.
And for Coffinger, who earlier this season said the only downside to ascending to the No. 1 spot on the depth chart at quarterback following Sokol’s injury was that the coaches couldn’t risk him playing defense, it’s a chance to get back to basics and, well, hit some people, from his rightful spot at linebacker.
“Everything just clicked last week,” Sokol said, ignoring the loss as well. “Why can’t we change our season right now?
A warm welcome
Sokol admits a little bit of nervousness setting in when Desert Vista took the ball for its first series against Chandler. And as much as he could have prepared for it, nothing really said “welcome back” to the college prospect like the first time he dropped back to pass.
Sokol recalls: “It was actually my first pass play. I rolled out and I knew the (defender) was coming. Even though I was ready for it, he still stuck me pretty hard – really, really hard.
“I didn’t know what to think at first. I mean, (the foot is) a healed injury, but it’s still going to hurt,” he added. “But I was fine, and I realized it was one of those things where you have to get that first hit out of the way. And after, “OK, I’m fine. I can take some hits. Let’s go.”
Sokol didn’t exactly light the world on fire that first half, completing 4-of-13 passes for 68 yards before throwing an interception on his first play after halftime. But after that pick, Sokol was 7-of-10 for 98 yards and two touchdowns.
Yes, something clicked after all.
“As hard as it was to not be out there, this couldn’t be happening at a better time,” he said this week, noting both the importance the next two games against Phoenix Brophy and Mesa Red Mountain have on the Thunder extending their season, as well as Sokol’s own personal chances of extending his career.
Spending the heart of his senior season on the sidelines on crutches, Sokol knows that plenty of valuable opportunities for college scouts to see him play – and see how he could help their team in the future – have dissipated. But all is not lost.
“These (games) are so huge for our team, I can’t even say how important they are,” he said. “But these are definitely huge for my future, too.”
As much as Sokol says the right thing over and over again – reiterating his commitment to “team” too many times to count – he’s still wise enough to admit that he wants to succeed as this season plays out for himself as much as the team. That’s only natural, he contends, adding that it’s actually a good thing if both happen.
“A great thing,” he said, is if the team does well, that means I probably played well for myself … if I can play well, the team should do well. It goes both ways.”
Sokol is also careful not to forget the not-so-little people whose efforts will be just as critical to both his success and that of the team come Friday night.
“I actually took the linemen out for pizza one of these nights just to talk,” he said. “I had to tell them how crucial these two weeks really are – for our season, and for me.
“They’re going to be just as big a part of that as I will.”
A comfort zone
Even Sokol admits it’s probably hard to try and put yourself in Sean Coffinger’s shoes.
Coffinger entered the season as the backup quarterback to a teammate – Sokol – projected to be one of the best quarterbacks in the area. He prepped during fall camp on defense, earning himself time on assistant coach Greg Battle’s defensive unit, and got accustomed to hitting guys more often than he was trying to avoid them.
But that was all before he was thrust into the starting lineup during week two, and back into action just after halftime during a week three matchup against a team – rival Mountain Pointe – that still, to this day, hasn’t lost this season.
The first time Coffinger had a full week to prepare with the first team offense, it was juggernaut Chandler Hamilton – another still unbeaten team – coming to Ahwatukee Foothills to take on the Thunder.
“That was not an easy situation by any stretch,” Hinds admits. “Sean definitely did all of this for the team though. To take him away from defense like that and throw him into that situation…
“Sean definitely did this for the team,” he adds. “He’s just a great kid, very unselfish. I’ve never heard Sean complain once, ever. It’s always 'OK coach, what do you need me to do.’”
Coffinger said having Sokol there on the sideline was a huge help when trying to get acclimated to a position he’s only played for one season against some of the state’s best teams.
“He was another coach. He really was,” he said of Sokol. “And he was someone I could relate to too, which was huge.”
Coffinger said that while he had some fun times playing on offense – like when he led Desert Vista to a 28-16 win over St. Mary’s by completing 14 of 24 passes for 150 yards and a touchdown – he’s content being back at home on defense.
“I like to hit,” he said. “That’s what I’m good at. That’s what I like to do.
“On defense, I just get it. Offense takes a lot of work, and I do enjoy it,” he added. “Of course I enjoy playing quarterback, but I grew up playing tight end and defense, so I just get it more.”
Coffinger said he doesn’t know whether he’ll be at quarterback next season, but adds that he’s open to the opportunity to compete for any position open to him.
“Whatever the team needs,” Coffinger said, convincingly. “If I could play both that could be cool. But the coaches will know.”
Added Hinds: “As long as a kid like (Coffinger) is on my football team, I’ll find something for him.”