A quick look down the Prosser football roster before the season started didn’t seem to add up to another great year for the Mustangs.
They were graduating a big senior class that had taken up most of the starting spots for a couple of years, they were returning just two players who earned all-league honors, and only 12 of them had those two little letters that make coaches smile: “sr.”
Add to that their best player blew out his knee on the last play of team camp in Boise and ... well ... there weren’t a lot of glass-half-full types whispering in coach Benji Sonnichsen’s ear.
So if the fifth-year coach’s smile is a little extra wide these days and his voice a little more chipper, it is because despite all that, his Mustangs are right back where they seem to be every year: in the state semifinals.
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And those 12 seniors have made all the difference.
“Our seniors did a good job as far as showing up every day in summer and setting the tone for the team,” said Sonnichsen, whose Mustangs (9-3) take on Tumwater (12-0) in the Class 2A semifinals at 3 p.m. Saturday at Edgar Brown Stadium in Pasco.
“There’s not very many of them, and obviously we needed our young guys to step up, and they did. But our seniors are a good group of kids.”
A group that has been part of three state semifinal teams. Elijah Hoefer started in the past two games at linebacker and no doubt would be suiting up for a third if not for that knee injury back in the summer.
He remained a captain on the team and was determined the Mustangs would live up to the mantle of Prosser football.
“We started out our freshmen year, we had a lot of guys, and we always thought we would be state contenders our senior year,” said Hoefer, who has a scholarship offer from Eastern Oregon University. “As the years went on, we got down to nine seniors (playing) now, and they’ve got to take the role of being leaders on the team and pushing the younger guys.”
That’s right, down to nine seniors since Hoefer, AJ Goulet and Tyler McFerran are sidelined with injuries. That leaves starters Trino Flores, Ethan Hibbs, Cody Johnson, Miguel Montano, Mason Schutt and Kyle Steinbock, special teams ace Joey Hatch and back-ups Austin Dennis and Josh Hernandez.
Just making the playoffs were in serious doubt for Prosser, let alone playing past Thanksgiving. A surprising 13-7 loss to West Valley on Oct. 18 meant that the Mustangs were playing for their season the final three weeks of the CWAC slate, during a playoff qualifier and into a third week of the postseason.
That’s about a month and a half of must-win games.
“Honestly I had my doubts,” said Steinbock, a starting tight end and defensive end. “A lot of people were doubting us, talking about how this would be the year everything falls to pieces. I think that kind of motivated us, and we became hungry after that.”
Sonnichsen said there was a key moment early in the season when the coaches laid it on the line for the sophomores and juniors, who occupied a lot of the starting spots but weren’t playing with a sense of urgency.
“We had to step in as a coaching staff and tell them, ‘You guys got to understand something — these seniors have made the semifinals since they were sophomores. They played your roles. They played on the scout team. They know what it takes, so get behind these guys.’ That led to a turnaround.”
One that hasn’t gone unnoticed by the seniors, who speak about their younger teammates like proud older brothers.
“I’ve been impressed,” Hoefer said. “On our team, our seniors always say, the team is led by sophomores and juniors more than seniors. David Ledezma at middle linebacker, Riley Lusk. Javier Diaz, he’s another sophomore who has stepped up. It’s very impressive.”