Joey Sinclair said he sometimes wonders — where might he be without Masaki Matsumoto?
Would he be the two-year starting quarterback for the Lincoln High School football team, responsible for helping lead the Abes to back-to-back league titles, two consecutive state playoff appearances and on the verge of the program’s first trip to the state semifinals?
He said he certainly didn’t imagine it before.
“Honestly, I didn’t have any idea,” Sinclair said. “I was used to being a backup quarterback my whole life before. It’s just crazy. I never expected this to happen.”
That’s not to say he was at all happy when he learned before the start of last season that former coach Jon Kitna, the Lincoln alum and former NFL quarterback, was leaving to take over as head coach at a school in Texas.
Or that it meant Kitna’s son, Jordan, was moving with him after a record-setting junior season as Lincoln’s quarterback in 2014, when he led the Abes to the state quarterfinals.
But it did mean Sinclair’s opportunity would come sooner than expected.
He remembers that first start like it was yesterday, with Lincoln hosting Roosevelt of Portland in the 2015 opener.
“I was so nervous,” Sinclair said. “I almost cried because I was so nervous. I was like shaking and everything.”
Then he threw his first touchdown pass, giving a taste of what would make him so special when he stepped up to avoid pressure, then rolled left to escape it before hitting a wide-open Marcus Wiley.
“Then I was like, ‘Ah … I’m good,” Sinclair said.
He’s since thrown for 1,000 yards for the second consecutive year — 1,710 this season after 1,184 in five games last year in an injury-shortened season. He’s accounted for 43 touchdowns, passing and rushing combined.
The 3A Pierce County League’s coaches selected Sinclair as their offensive player of the year because of how difficult the dual-threat QB is to game plan for. Sinclair has 514 rushing yards (6.5 yards per carry) after 245 yards (5.6 yards per carry) last year.
“I’ve coached 10 years and I’ve never had a quarterback as athletic and who has great instincts to back up the athleticism,” Matsumoto said.
“And sometimes, you know, that gets us into trouble,” Matsumoto laughed. “Sometimes during a play I’ll be yelling like, ‘What is he doing?’ And then at the end I’ll be like, ‘Oh, all right.’ But 90 percent of the time he makes things happen.”
But it hasn’t gone as smoothly as they thought it might this year.
For one, Lincoln lost its top five receivers from last year to graduation.
Matsumoto began the year with the plan to go Air Raid. Then there was the season-opening loss to O’Dea — the top-ranked 3A team in the state and Lincoln’s opponent in the state quarterfinals at 7 p.m. Friday at Seattle Memorial Stadium.
And Lincoln barely escaped with an overtime victory the following week against Auburn Mountainview. Sinclair threw five interceptions combined in those two games.
So Lincoln’s coaches made a midseason shift. Why confine Sinclair to the pocket when he’s able to make so many plays with his legs?
“I felt like we handcuffed him,” Matsumoto said, “instead of saying, ‘Hey, if you feel pressure and you feel like you can make the play, then make the play.’
“We wanted to go into the season as an Air Raid team, and run the ball when there is an opportunity. But then I would say maybe midseason we became a running team. Throwing the ball isn’t as high of a priority anymore, but we do feel really good that when we call it, it gets done.”
But it’s not Sinclair’s on-field production that Matsumoto, the former coach of the year at Hollywood Bernstein in California, as selected by the Los Angeles Times, is most impressed with.
Sinclair has been one of Lincoln’s “agape leaders,” as voted on by his teammates for two years in a row. But Matsumoto said it’s been in the past two months, especially, that he’s seen Sinclair grow most as a leader.
Matsumoto spoke to the team about what he calls “goal grinders” — those who work hard because they want something, not because they don’t want punishment.
“Not that I was staring at Joey, but I was scanning the room and I could just see that he was really listening,” Matsumoto said. “I think that hit him in the heart.”
It took a while, Sinclair said, for him to buy into Matsumoto’s philosophies. In their first meeting in February 2015, Matsumoto told Lincoln’s players that he was more concerned with building them into better men than football players.
Then he saw Sinclair, after a win over Wilson, speaking about “force multipliers” — an idea Matsumoto had preached to the Abes about “speaking teammates’ names and cheering each other on, which creates a force that you can’t see. And instead of playing with 50 guys, it’s like we’re playing with 80 because of that force you create by encouraging each other.”
“I hadn’t talked about that in like a year and here Joey is mentioning it,” Matsumoto said. “I was like, ‘All right, he’s getting it.’ It’s not about stats, it’s not about himself, it’s about teammates and loving each other and playing for each other.
“All these things have kind of shown me in the last two months that he has grown, just through the things he says and the way he carries himself, and in the classroom. I even went to Joey and I said, ‘You know, I’m proud of you. I’ve seen the change and keep that up.’ ”
And now Lincoln, with a 38-7 record during Sinclair’s time at the school, has an opportunity to do what no Abes team has done before.
And it’s as much because of Sinclair’s off-the-field maturity as on-the-field exploits.
“As a person, I feel like I’ve become a better leader, a better teammate, a better son to my parents, a better brother to my sister,” Sinclair said. “It’s just been improving overall as a person and a player.
“I’m all in. I’m bought in. It was definitely weird going from one coach to a different coach and things changing and rules changing. But over time I’ve bought in and I started understanding. I love it.”
TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677