Win or lose in Saturday’s Class 3A state championship game, the case can be made that this season will go down as the finest coaching job St. Michael’s Joey Fernandez has ever done at his alma mater.
Hired as the football team’s head coach in 2002, he has won more games and brought home more state titles than anyone in the history of Santa Fe. When the dust settles on his career, he’ll arguably be remembered as the greatest coach Northern New Mexico has ever had and be hailed as one of the best prep football coaches in the state.
He didn’t need a state title this season to make any of that true; he’s done that by building and maintaining a football powerhouse that has never missed the playoffs under his watch and won more postseason games than all other St. Michael’s coaches combined.
This year, he had all the tools to bring home another state title, his fourth. He returned most of the team that went unbeaten in last spring’s truncated COVID-19 season, a roster loaded with high-profile skill players and linemen who made the Horsemen a preseason favorite.
It was going well until the night of Sept. 3, when Lucas Coriz went down with a devastating season-ending knee injury. The starting quarterback for the better part of four years, he was so entrenched at the top of the depth chart that no one knew who the backup was — including some of those close to the program.
Fernandez immediately took the blame for not developing Coriz’s heir. The mindset of 2021 was to ride the senior class as far as it would take them. Losing the centerpiece was a scenario no one saw coming.
Minus Coriz’s rifle arm and removed from his on-field leadership and undeniable playmaking skills, the Horsemen were primed for a nosedive. They lost that game to the Demons and immediately went from an offense that passed the ball at least 50 percent of the time to a club that rotated four players into Coriz’s spot in a run-heavy scheme.
They experimented with the wildcat, ran some option, did some direct snaps to the running backs, occasionally tried throwing the ball deep and had one game where they handed it off for all but a few snaps in an ugly win over Los Alamos. Sprinkle in the usual array of injuries and a few cases of coronavirus, and the dream season appeared lost.
It didn’t help that the team’s top pass catcher, receiver Devin Flores, was the primary guy thrust into the quarterback’s role. Aside from losing Coriz, they also lost a glue-guy in the passing game.
Take the playbook, throw it in the shredder. Then deal with a team whose emotions had been scrambled. Top it off with a bye week where the mad scientist had a chance to reinvent the wheel using existing parts and a bunch of creativity.
Two months down the road, and the Horsemen are where we all expected them to be back in August — but a place no one thought was attainable in mid-September.
The great ones, they have the ability to adapt when nothing seems to go their way.
Fernandez proved his greatness years ago. All he’s doing now is adding to the legacy.