One day earlier, the most pressing matter in his life was, of all things, a can drive.
On Saturday, May 1, Mike Matz and the Portville baseball team held the first in a series of fundraisers, aiming to put a couple extra dollars toward one of the most anticipated seasons in Matz’s 16-year tenure. On Monday, May 3, the Panthers held their first practice of this COVID-delayed (and shortened) campaign, beginning preparations for their initial taste of baseball since May of 2019.
“And sandwiched in the middle of that is the most life-changing event that I’ve ever experienced,” Matz said.
On Sunday, the Portville coach’s world was turned upside down when his 10-year-old son, Colt, was diagnosed with leukemia.
On the eve of Day 1, Matz essentially turned the team over to assistants West Long, Carl Hollamby and his father, Dave Matz, not knowing if or when he’d be back in the dugout. And so began a trying, nearly two-month test of will in which Matz somehow managed to both be there for Colt through treatments at Oishei Children's Hospital in Buffalo and be present for one of the best seasons in program history.
BOUNCING between Lake Shore, where the family lived at a friend’s place to be closer to the hospital, and Portville, Matz guided the Panthers to an unbeaten regular season (14-0), a CCAA East I title and a home game in the Section 6 Class C championship, where they came just a couple of innings away from perfection. Along the way, he called in box scores from the road -- even after the two games he missed -- and Zoom’ed with his team when he couldn’t be there in person.
For those efforts, amid a personal crisis of that magnitude, Matz was recently named the Larry Sudbrook Award winner as the Big 30 Baseball Coach of the Year. Succeeding under her own set of challenging circumstances -- she was a first-year coach who’d welcomed back just three starters from 2019 -- Bolivar-Richburg’s Brooke Lovell won the same honor for softball, claiming the Frank Cady Award.
And though the accolade has historically been given to two individuals each year, this, for Matz especially, was a group award.
“If I made a list of who to thank, you could do an entire column just listing names,” he maintained. “If there was ever a community award, this was it. Starting with those three (assistant coaches), but everybody -- everybody -- got behind not just me, but got behind the kids … to not just hold it together, but get the kids ready, help them prepare, help them be ready to excel.
“There were so many people that played a part in helping us to get ready, it was just mindblowing.”
IN BOLIVAR, rather than a serious medical issue, adversity stemmed from an on-field standpoint.
But it was adversity nonetheless.
In her first spring as a head coach, Lovell inherited a team that not only hadn’t played in two years, but returned just four regulars from the 2019 campaign. That number was then reduced to three when one of its top players, Aliyah Cole, was injured toward the end of basketball season, causing her to miss the entirety of the spring campaign.
And still, Lovell was able to maintain the high standard that has long been in place for B-R softball.
The Wolverines went 16-3, losing only to Class B powerhouse Wellsville twice and Section 6 power Portville -- two of those by one run -- en route to the Section 5 Class C2 championship. In the playoffs, they twice knocked off higher-seeded opponents on the road -- No. 2 Dundee/Bradford in the semifinals and No. 1 Lynondonville in the title game. And while the Portville baseball team, under difficult conditions, still managed to meet its high preseason expectations, B-R softball probably exceeded them.
“It was a little bit of a pleasant surprise,” said Lovell, an Arkport native and 2010 Keuka College graduate, who played both softball and soccer collegiately. “I knew that we had a talented group of athletes … but coming in, we had a young group of inexperienced varsity players and I just wasn’t really sure how they would adjust to having a new coach and how they would necessarily mesh together.
“But from the beginning, the girls were motivated, they set their goals pretty high and they were able to achieve, so I was really impressed with what those girls were able to do this season.”
ON THE baseball side, there were a handful of deserving Coach of the Year candidates (softball, too).
Wellsville’s Marc Agnello and Bolivar-Richburg’s Dustin Allen each led his team to a Section 5 title. Olean’s Les DeGolier, who’d returned just three players with varsity experience, led the Huskies all the way to the Section 6 Class B-1 title, where they were edged by City Honors, 5-2.
But what set Matz and Portville apart was their ability to maintain their focus through their coach’s intermittent absences, through something else weighing heavy on Matz’s mind and through the entire community’s concern for Colt.
Portville, behind a loaded lineup featuring Big 30 Co-Player of the Year Maxx Yehl and fellow all-star Joe Long, won 10 games by 10 or more runs. Only twice did it fail to win by at least five runs.
Somehow, it remained unblemished until the final day of the season.
The question is, how?
“It’s certainly fine to have a lot of physical talent,” noted Matz, a two-time Sudbrook Award after first claiming it in 2010. “But at least in my opinion, what separates good from great or even average from good is the mental side -- the focus, the drive, the dedication.
“I think that’s what really helped us. I told the kids, our problems will be there when we’re done. But for this time that we’re on this field together, let’s work on allowing ourselves to put our problems to the side and let go of that burden even for a little bit and focus on something else.”
He added: “If you can do that, if you can compartmentalize and not brush off your problems, but understand there’s a time and a place, that’s a great life skill too. I think we all learned something about that skill, and that’s something that served us well in the season and will serve all of us well in life.”
WITH A relatively youthful roster -- and coming off a lost year due to COVID-19 -- Lovell could well have chalked up 2021 as a rebuilding year.
B-R had just three seniors after the injury to Cole, which left a void at two critically important positions -- pitcher and shortstop. And though there was talent coming up the ranks, highlighted by Big 30 all-stars Jessica Majot and Malayna Ayers and sophomore twins Madigan and McKinlee Harris, they’d yet to prove themselves at the varsity level.
Instead, the Wolverines chose not to miss a beat, producing a season befitting of B-R softball.
And again, the question is: How?
“Obviously, the girls’ hard work,” said Lovell, who was aided by Mark Corso and B-R softball dean Stan Harris, the program’s other Coach of the Year winner (2006, ‘14). “They put in 110 percent for this season. And I would just probably attribute it to the fact that I was able to just build those relationships with them ahead of time, and it seemed like they were ready and willing to give 110 percent all the time.
“It was those positive relationships and my players’ work ethic.”
IN PORTVILLE, amid a standout year that ended with a singular stinging loss to Gowanda in the ‘C’ title game, valuable lessons were learned.
Matz’s players learned that while baseball is important, “there are the things that are infinitely bigger than that.” They were forced into, and quickly embraced, taking on more responsibility; there were no coaches at the team picture day, so the seniors took it upon themselves to make sure that everybody was organized for the shot.
His kids “grew up quite a bit” from the Matz family’s personal hardship. A community -- and many in the surrounding areas, from the orange balloons, to the No. 45 placards, to the t-shirts and other fundraisers -- rallied around one of its own.
And those things were as important as anything Matz and the Panthers accomplished on the field this summer.
“Out of something so awful, there was some beauty coming from it,” he acknowledged. “We felt all along the strong sense of community that we have -- whether it’s parents or the school administration; everybody was just, ‘How can I help? What do we need to do?’ That made it until we found some sort of new equilibrium.”
He added, “Fortunately, the treatments went well, and I would ask Colt, ‘Are you okay if I go to the game, and if not, I’m going.’ And just about every time, ‘Yeah, go to the game, it’s fine.’ Any significant other of a coach, they shoulder a lot of the load during the season just because you’re doing more. (My wife) Chrissy was just awesome. She was the same as Colt, ‘If everything’s stable here, then go.’
“They allowed me to coach, the community helped us out tremendously and the kids were fantastic.”
Lovell, meanwhile, in Year 1, was able to maintain a lofty standard, leading the Wolverines to their first sectional championship since back-to-back crowns in 2014 and ‘15 while preserving the winning culture established by Harris.
“It was pretty awesome,” she admitted. “It’s obviously something to be proud of and I just attribute it to the fact that I’ve had some really good coaches in my personal playing career at both the high school and college level, and I want to be that positive coach as well. It’s a really humbling and really nice thing to be selected, especially in my first year.”
(J.P. Butler, Bradford Publishing Company group sports editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)