STAMFORD, Conn. – Trinity Catholic High football coach Pete Stokes says the Stamford team's run to the Class S state tournament is the top accomplishment in his storied sports career. From an emotional standpoint, the Crusaders’ success this fall also ranks high.
The sixth-seeded Crusaders (8-2) visit No. 3 North Branford (10-0) in the first round of the state tournament at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday. It is the Crusaders' first appearance in the tournament since 1993, when they won the state title.
This was a pivotal year for the Crusaders, Stokes said at the start of the season. His team had underachieved in his first three years as head coach, including consecutive 3-7 seasons, he said. “I thought we could turn it around because we were healthy,’’ Stokes said.
He also recommitted himself to the team. He had a heart attack in 2010 and missed the final month of the season. Last year, he was devastated when his mother, Christine, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She died Dec. 21, 2011.
“I’m not saying my mind wasn’t focused, but the woman I loved the most in my life I knew was dying,’’ Stokes said. “The only true person that loved me more than anything, other than my wife, was dying. She never shed a tear for herself. She stayed strong. She showed me what courage was. I doubted myself, doubted that I was doing enough as a son, a coach, a husband and a father. I thought I was slipping a little.”
Before the season began, Stokes reassessed everything. “My assistants stood behind me. I’ve been doing this too long to know that I wasn’t doing it completely. I knew deep down in my heart I wasn’t doing it completely. Now, I feel we are.”
Trinity’s success is gratifying not only because of the physical and emotional turmoil of the past two years, but also because he bleeds Trinity Green and Gold. He was the quarterback of the Stamford Catholic team that won the Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference title in 1984 and went on to play football and baseball at Plymouth State. He coached at Masuk and Norwalk before returning to Trinity as an assistant under former coach Bryan Fox.
“I’ve won the FCIAC as a player, been to the Babe Ruth World Series, played on some tremendous college baseball teams,’’ Stokes said. “But this is the most that I’ve ever achieved in my life.”
The defining moment for Trinity came in September, when the Crusaders beat New Canaan in overtime, 31-28. It was the Crusaders’ first win over the Rams since 1984, when Stokes directed his team past them. Trinity scored seven straight wins before losing to Darien on a last-second touchdown and then to St. Joseph. With the playoffs at stake, Trinity grabbed its playoff berth by beating Wilton on Thanksgiving, 42-32.
“I was sick to my stomach,’’ Stokes said as kickoff approached against Wilton.”(Wilton coach) Bruce Cunningham has been there a long time. I knew they’d be ready. We scored on our first play, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Then they scored on their first play and it put them right back in it. It went back and forth all day.”
The Crusaders got it done, and now they make the long journey to North Branford. Win or lose, Stokes and the Trinity football family are enjoying the ride of a lifetime.
“It was tremendous going to work on Sunday and people going to church at St. Gabriel’s were clapping for us and wishing us good luck,’’ Stokes said. “This is the kind of season that you don’t ever want it to end.”