Darien's Matheis driven to succeed
Updated 2:19 pm, Thursday, April 19, 2012
DARIEN -- Dom Fin remembers the conversation vividly, even though it took place seven years ago. Fin was deciding which of two boys to cut on his Darien fifth-grade travel lacrosse team when he sought counsel from Case Matheis, one of his best players.
"He said to me, `I'm here to play and you're here to make those tough decisions,' " Fin recalled with a laugh. "This was a fifth-grade kid. I turned to myself and said `Holy cow.' "
Jeff Brameier tells a somewhat similar story about Matheis.
"I knew there was something to him as a freshman when I pulled him out of a game and he asked me why," said Brameier, the lacrosse coach at Darien High School. "I explained the reason to him. It was an interesting dynamic, a first-year player saying something like that to his coach."
The two stories are representative of Matheis' preternatural poise and his ability to create a buzz. His greatest notoriety, of course, has come playing for the Blue Wave. Last Tuesday, Matheis became the leading scorer in the team's glorified history. More impressively, Matheis is ranked by most scouting services as either the No. 1- or 2-rated high school lacrosse player in the country, a distinction he handles with the same ease he uses to outmaneuver opposing defenders.
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"I don't take myself too seriously. There's a list of people who were No. 1 in high school and then didn't do well in college," said Matheis, who committed to play at Duke well before his junior season at Darien began. "I don't want to be one of those players."
Matheis' status could have proved both a distraction and disruption for Brameier if his prolific attackman had even an ounce as much ego as talent, and his focus was more on headlines than victories and championships.
"He sort of basks in the attention in some ways, but he's very composed in his own skin," Brameier said. "He's a smart kid. He's very good around people and generally people like him a lot. Teachers like him, players like him, other coaches like him."
Matheis credits people like Fin and Brameier for accelerating his development, his teammates for making him a better player and his parents for an outlook that his inner circle finds more impressive than anything he can do with a stick.
"I think I have just been raised well," Matheis said. "The people at home taught me the right goals and values. They taught me how everything I do comes from hard work."
Fin, a three-time All-American at Syracuse, said it was easy to see that Matheis was predestined for the national spotlight.
"I remember his determination," Fin said. "He was probably one of the smallest players on the field, but he was knocking people down twice the size of him. I remember Case really wanted to learn. It was apparent even in the fifth grade he was something special. I saw it really early and real fast."
Henry West, who grew up playing with Matheis and is one of the Blue Wave's top players, used the same adjective as Fin to describe his long-time teammate, who even now is just 5-foot-8 and 150 pounds.
"You could tell he was special," said West, who will play next year at Cornell. "He had good stickwork, good skills and good vision. He was quick and had a passion for the game. And he got better year by year. It was all because of hard work. He might be the hardest worker I've seen."
Mathies' impact has been far-reaching, including even playing the role of recruiter. When he was in the eighth grade, he convinced a friend, Tony Britton, to make the move from baseball to lacrosse. Britton, and All-Class M selection last season on defense, is another one of Darien's current leaders and will be joining West next year at Cornell.
"Case has had a great influence on me," Britton said. "We lifted together all last season. He's a good leader. You want him on your team. Going against him in practice is a luxury because there are going to be a lot of Cases at the next level."
One of Matheis' few setbacks was not of his own making. Last season he tore his meniscus in an FCIAC quarterfinal game against Fairfield Ludlowe and missed the remainder of the season.
"It was a weird day," Matheis said. "We didn't know until we went into New York City for an MRI. When I was told I needed surgery, that's when it hit me. Watching the rest of the games was really tough. I kind of lived through my teammates."
Asked if the injury spurred worst-case scenarios about his future, Matheis said, "Certainly there are moments that flash through your head, but you can't freak yourself out like that. It just made me train harder and harder."
If there was any fear about how Matheis' play might be affected this season, it has quickly been put to rest. Matheis broke Cooper Macdonnell's school scoring record last Tuesday, finishing with six points that gave him 139 goals and 110 assists. Two days later, against a Wilton team that upset Darien in last year's state semifinals, Matheis scored four goals -- including the game-winner -- and added two assists in a 10-8 victory. Saturday he scored five goals to go with two assists in a 16-10 win over defending California state champion Torrey Pines.
"I'm not surprised what he's accomplished," Brameier said. "During his freshman year, you could see the way he handled the pressure. First and foremost, he has a keen sense of the game. He's good with the ball and with the stick, and creating. He's very good without the ball and a tremendous inside finisher. He has a great change of direction. He's tough to get a hit on because he's able to run by people. And he's great at creating space."
Matheis, in a growing trend for players considered "can't-miss" prospects, committed to Duke in September of his junior year.
"I have no regrets about the decision whatsoever," Matheis said. "It's the perfect place, and it took some of the stress off that some of my peers have to go through. I had to go through the same process and meet the requirements with my grades."
On the surface, it would appear Matheis will need to put on a Duke uniform in order to face his next big challenge. But he has a list of items on his agenda for his final two months with the Blue Wave, several that make him sound like the program historian.
"An undefeated season," he said. "That's how I want it to happen. It has only occurred once, in 2005. I've never won an FCIAC and state title in the same year. That hasn't happened since 2008. I've never beaten Manhassett."