Teammates mourn popular soccer player and teacher Matt Sokol

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Santa Rosa's tight-knit soccer community was in mourning Sunday over the sudden death of a beloved 41-year-old player who collapsed during a club soccer match and never regained consciousness.

Matt Sokol, a former standout soccer player and coach at Montgomery High School, had just come off the pitch at Northwest Community Park in Santa Rosa about noon Sunday when he appeared to suffer a seizure on the sidelines and blacked out.

His Black Oaks Soccer Club teammates, who include a doctor at Kaiser Hospital, quickly went to his aid. Despite their efforts, Sokol died a short while later at Sutter Medical Center of an apparent heart-related ailment.

Sokol had recently returned to Santa Rosa from a honeymoon with his new bride. A teacher in the Piner-Olivet Union School District since 2002, Sokol was supposed to begin the new school year today at Schaefer Elementary School, where he was to teach first grade.

"We can't even get our heads around this. It's just such a shock," Nicholas Sokol said Sunday night of his son's death.

At Sweet Spot on Fourth Street, tears and beer flowed into the evening as friends and teammates gathered for an impromptu memorial service.

John Ryan, who owns the pub and plays for Black Oaks, said he was sent in as a substitute for Sokol about five minutes before half-time.

"He gave me a low-five and then seconds later he collapsed," said a stunned Ryan, his eyes reddened with tears.

Ryan closed the pub Sunday for the private gathering. A team portrait was on the bar, leaned against the beer taps.

"He was a part of the soccer community and a good man," said David Shaffer, who coached the boys' squad at Montgomery in the 1990s and coaches the Santa Rosa United Gold U-16 boys' soccer team.

Shaffer said he hired Sokol to coach a junior varsity squad. The pair also enjoyed fishing for steelhead together.

Sokol had been absent from the Black Oaks team with a back injury prior to returning to the field for the game on Sunday versus Safari. He appeared to be in his element, leading the attack as a striker and making some nice passes.

Several people heard him say that he felt great only seconds before he collapsed.

Rob Nied, the Kaiser physician and teammate who rushed to Sokol's aid, said Sokol was still breathing when he reached him. Sokol's breathing then stopped and Nied helped administer CPR until paramedics arrived.

Nicholas Sokol said Sutter doctors informed him that his son likely suffered a ventricular fibrillation, which is an abnormal heart rhythm. Whether the problem was due to something sudden or a symptom of underlying heart disease is not yet known.

"I can only be as philosophical as everyone else," Nied said. "Sometimes, it's your time. I don't think there was anything he could have done about it."

Sokol was born in Berkeley and raised in Santa Rosa, where he attended Slater Middle School.

At Montgomery, he was a standout track athlete in addition to his exploits on the soccer field. He won the North Bay League titles for the 110 and 300 meter hurdles his junior and senior years, and held the school record in the 300 for seven years.

Sokol was a member of the famed 1991 soccer squad at Santa Rosa Junior College that went 16-3-2 and advanced to the state semifinals before losing on penalty kicks.

He also played for Humboldt State University, where he earned degrees in sociology and education.

Sokol taught at several schools in the Piner-Olivet Union School District, most recently a combination third- and fourth-grade class at Jack London School.

"He had an incredible ability to connect with kids. He was very caring," said Jennie Snyder, superintendent of the school district.

She said the district will have a new teacher in place at Schaefer by Wednesday when kids arrive for the start of classes. She said district officials also were planning to contact parents to inform them of the change and of Sokol's death.

Sokol married Sarah Klein Aug. 4 in a ceremony at Warren Woods in Sebastopol. She was present Sunday when he collapsed.

In addition to his wife, Sokol is survived by his parents, Nicholas and Michele Sokol, and younger sister, Anne Handel of Albany.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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