All-out effort earns recognition
By SARAH RYKOWSKI
She's one of the most visible faces on Saint Mary's campus. On the basketball court, student government meetings, or in the classroom, Kristen Matha gives it her all.
"Every time she steps out on the court, she goes all out," head basketball coach Suzanne Smith said. "You can see that after two minutes. Ever since she decided to commit to basketball I have seen her give 100 percent to basketball. I don't think she gives less to anything she does."
This year on the basketball court Matha has made a difference in the Belles' play. After finishing a lackluster 1999 season with a 4-22 record, the basketball team is now 3-2 overall. Just two weeks into this season, the Belles are making their mark in the MIAA, with Matha leading the team. She was named the MVP at this past weekend's Turkey Shoot Classic.
"They don't give the MVP to the best player on the losing team," Matha said. "It's got to be a team effort. It's not a reflection of me. It's a reflection of our team."
Despite the rest of the team's skill, Matha has become a driving force behind the Belles. But life wasn't always so rosy for Matha. After playing volleyball and basketball her freshman year, Matha came into her second year at Saint Mary's unsure about her athletic future.
"I played three sports in high school and I was the president of my Key Club," Matha said. "In high school, you have the opportunity to be well-rounded. It helped me prepare for college but they are two different worlds."
Matha, who was elected sophomore class president at the end of her freshman year, elected not to come out for volleyball. And near the beginning of the basketball season, she wasn't even sure if she still wanted to play. But she eventually decided that she could do both student government and athletics justice and came out for the team a second year.
"I made the right decision," Matha said with a smile. "That day was a reality check — how much basketball meant to me."
It makes one wonder how she balances everything.
"At times it's overwhelming," dhe said. "Athletics is amazing. It has opened so many doors. And student government, because of the great people I've met, I've learned they are there for me and they will get me through anything. The sophomore board is wonderful. They make being class president very easy."
Still, Matha said that it is hard to leave everything behind her when she steps on the court and has to concentrate totally on the game.
"It's hard to completely concentrate on one thing," Matha said. "I have a tough time clearing my mind totally before entering the gym. It is something I'm working on."
Smith and Matha's high school coach, Jim Sarver, don't agree completely with Matha's assessment of herself.
"She was a tenacious player," Sarver said. "She very seldom took a moment off while she played. She didn't do anything halfway."
Under Sarver's direction at Dixon High School, in Matha's hometown of Dixon, Illinois, Matha was named Player of the Year in the Sauk Valley area, and was a member of the All-State Third Team in Illinois.
"Kristen sometimes is her own worst critic," Sarver said. "I think it is something she's become more aware of. But the intensity she has about some things improves her skill on the court, which I've told her. She was player of the year in the area because of her ability to do things that other girls couldn't do."
While Matha hasn't played under Smith for long — this is Smith's first year at the bench for the Belles — she also sees a different Matha.
"Her decisive play and her hustle lead everybody by example and get us going," Smith said. "She gave 100 percent after she committed to basketball."
Matha was MIAA Player of the Week this week, after scoring 63 points and tallying 31 rebounds in three games. During the Turkey Shoot classic against Marietta, Matha tallied 23 points and 19 rebounds, connecting for 22 of 33 field goals, 19 of 27 free throws and making seven assists and six blocked shots.
She holds the top two positions in the MIAA Leaders list for rebounds in a game, after Marietta. In the first tournament of the year tallying 18 against Johnson and Wales. She is ranked third overall in scoring in the MIAA, with 84 points in five games, averaging 16.8 points per game. Matha also holds third place in overall field goal shooting, making 27 of 44 attempts. She is second in rebounds, averaging 11 per game, and fourth in blocked shots, with 1.2 per game.
"She wants to be the best for everything," team co-captain Anne Blair said. "I look up to her and I'm older than her. She is really positive and a hard worker. It's motivation for me. She makes me work harder."
Matha has, above all else, set an example for the team. Last year, she struggled to adjust to the collegiate basketball scene. She was tied for eighth in the MIAA final standings for steals, averaging 1.7 per game, A far cry from the Matha of this year who is all over the charts.
"There are two things that Matha has improved," senior co-captain Julie Norman said of her teammate.
"No. 1 is her confidence. Last year she was afraid to take shots. This year she has turned her play around. She has a great shot and she is a strong player who goes 100 percent all of the time. She muscles her way around out there, helping her to get points on the board. Matha is a leader by example."
Both Norman and Blair agree on the second aspect of Matha's sudden resurgence as a player.
"Her work has paid off from the summer," Blair said. "She's been conditioning."
"Everybody stepped up their play, but you can tell that Matha worked really hard in the off-season," Norman said. "She's intense. Every game she comes and plays really hard. She has a strong desire to win and she plays with her heart."
As a forward, Matha works closely with Blair on the court.
"I'm the other post," Blair said. "It's exciting to work with [Matha]. I push her and she pushes me. It is nice to have that kind of teamwork on the court."
Teamwork is the name of the game this year for the Belles, and it is always on Matha's mind.
"We've always been the underdog," Matha said. "No one believes in us. No one believes in us but Saint Mary's. We are going to prove a lot of people wrong this year."
All Sports Stories for Thursday, November 30, 2000