Throughout his 15 years as a football coach at Trinity Catholic High School, first as an assistant and, for the last four, at the head position, Pete Stokes has always referred to his team as a family.
But it became evident to Stokes a year ago that he had another family he had to prioritize — his wife and their four children.
And so, on Tuesday afternoon, Stokes gathered his players to inform them he is stepping down as the Crusaders’ coach. The move came exactly two weeks after the team’s best season in 19 years came to an end.
“I probably need a little bit of a break,” said Stokes, a former quarterback at the school. “The young ones need me for a little while.”
Stokes has four children, including a pair of 5-year old twins.
“One wants to dance and one plays soccer,” Stokes said. “I can’t keep relying on my wife to guide them. The FCIAC football season goes 12 months a year. With the amount of undue stress, I probably need to recharge the battery. I want to spend the next year with the kids and doing things around the house.”
Stokes missed a few games two years ago when he had to have a pacemaker and defibrillator inserted into his heart. Stokes stressed that his health was not a factor in the decision.
“I’m fine, they told me I have a big heart not an enlarged heart,” Stokes said with a chuckle. “I always talk family, family, family, but it is the ones at home I have to worry about.”
Stokes said the death of his mother last Dec. 21 was the impetus for reappraising his priorities. He said he decided to throw everything he had into this season, hoping to go out on a high note.
“We didn’t win many games last year,” said Stokes of a 3-7 season. “I lost my mother. I just decided I would go all out this season and then that would be it.”
The Crusaders reached and perhaps surpassed their coach’s high hopes. They started the season 7-0 and were the surprise entrant in the race for the FCIAC title. Following a last-second loss to Darien and a rout by St. Joseph, the team regrouped and defeated Wilton on Thanksgiving to qualify for the CIAC Class S playoffs for the first time since 1993.
Trinity ended the year 8-3 following a 49-28 loss to North Branford in the quarterfinal round.
“It was a tremendous season, a tremendous gift from the kids to me and my staff,” Stokes said. “They just have to continue it.”
Stokes, who replaced Bryan Fox four years ago, leaves with an 18-23 record. This season the Crusaders beat New Canaan for the first time in 28 years — to the day, when Stokes was the team’s winning quarterback. That season ended with Stokes leading the school then known as Stamford Catholic to the FCIAC title.
Stokes first informed Trinity athletic director Tracy Nichols of his intentions last week. Nichols said he will start an immediate search for Stokes’ successor. The job opening, which has to be posted for two weeks, will be put up today.
“Pete did a wonderful job continuing the excellent program that Bryan Fox had put in place,” Nichols said. “His devotion to this school’s athletic programs is a testament to the outstanding coaching he received when he played here. He wanted to give back and he did so in spades.”
Stokes is going to continue in his position as the school’s assistant hockey coach. He also said he would not rule out returning to football as an assistant sometime in the future.
This could begin a period of transition for the Crusaders. Offensive coordinator Joe Claps, another former player at the school, is also stepping down.
Stokes said he was confident no matter the composition of next year’s coaching staff, this season would prove a building point and not an outlier.
“I just know how important this is,” Stokes said. “We set the bar high. We said the amount of work by the team and the staff was going to have to be improved. For me to preach that and not be able to do it, I thought that was hypocritical. I didn’t know if I could give it my all right now. But there is a lot of talent coming back. Whoever the next guy is, is going to have the pieces to work with.”