Sports

Matthews to play volleyball at Kent State

By FRED KRONER
fred@mahometnews.com

Remember that childhood video, the one which never seems to disappear and somehow always manages to be found around holiday time when the family gathers together?

Usually it’s the one where the adults marvel at the “cuteness” factor while the young subject silently wishes for the super-power of being invisible.

Mahomet-Seymour senior Savannah Matthews has a well-played video in her background.

It’s one that was captured by her mother, Michelle.

It was not embarrassing.

Premature?

Perhaps.

Prophetic?

Probably.

“I was in third grade,” Savannah Matthews said.

The clip was taken at a volleyball camp.

“I did an overhead serve,” Savannah Matthews related.

That age group is one where youngsters are considered fortunate to make solid contact underhanded.

Michelle Matthews was understandably proud.

“Her caption was, ‘She’s only in third grade. College scholarship here we come.’ “

Most parents would be inclined to react in a similar manner, but Michelle Matthews’ statement was made with a knowledge and understanding about what is involved to reach a level to be recruited.

She was that player, also while attending Mahomet-Seymour.

In the 1990s, All-Area teams produced by The News-Gazette featured just six volleyball players on the first team and six on the second.

When the 1996 team was publicized, Michelle Matthews was one of only three non-seniors to be listed in the elite 12-player grouping.

A brief comment was made about each of the selections.

Beside junior Michelle Matthews’ name were the words, “certain to draw attention from colleges.”

She did, but a torn rotator cuff injury prior to her senior year forced her to miss the entire season.

Her dreams of playing Division I volleyball evaporated.

In Savannah Matthews’ elementary-school years, she participated in different sports.

She was a junior high school state-qualifier in track and field, specializing in the 200-meter dash.

She played basketball, but that was mostly to spend time with her friends, she said.

And then there was the other sport she tried.

Volleyball.

As a youngster, Savannah Matthews didn’t have a particular passion for it, nor was there any reason to dislike it.

“Back then, it was one of those things where I thought it might be something I’d be decent at,” she said. “It was like, ‘here’s another thing I could try.’ ”

Beyond that?

“It was cool to play the sport she (mom) did,” Savannah Matthews added.

The more Savannah Matthews played volleyball, the more she liked it, and the better she got.

“I felt like I was honoring her in a way,” Savannah Matthews said, “following in her footsteps and having her see her dreams through me.

“My mom is a big influence. She had faith in me.”

Earlier this week, Savannah Matthews got to sign a piece of paper that eluded her mother.

It was a national letter of intent. She made official a decision that was determined halfway through her prep career.

Savannah Matthews will play volleyball at Kent State University, in Ohio. She is considering a major in either psychology or physical therapy.

Earlier this season, she questioned her mom about her progress and development.

“I asked if she ever thought I would have this opportunity,” Savannah Matthews said.

That’s when the video from the volleyball camp nine years earlier came out of storage.

Michelle Matthews wasn’t the only person who believed there was a collegiate future for Savannah Matthews.

Mike Williams first started coaching Savannah Matthews when she was in seventh-grade. He was on the sidelines as an assistant for all four of her high school years on varsity.

“We have had many outstanding volleyball players at MSHS over the 18 years I have coached,” Williams said, “and Savannah has assured that her name will be mentioned with the all-time great volleyball players in our school’s history.

“Indeed, she will be remembered among the greatest athletes in any sport in our school’s history.

She is as close to an ‘unstoppable’ hitter as there is in the area.”

The News-Gazette has been producing All-Area teams for volleyball for 41 years.

Until Savannah Matthews came along, just three Bulldogs were recognized as first-teamers twice: Leah Rippy (2004, 2005), Rachel Ruedi (2005, 2006) and Emma Cabutti (2010 and 2011).

Williams didn’t make a prediction about Savannah Matthews’ college prospects as soon as her mom, but it didn’t take him long to get on board once he saw her play.

“It has been a pleasure to watch Savannah grow from a seventh-grader who was a little unsure of herself into a superbly talented athlete and confident young woman,” Williams said. “As a long-time coach, I know just how difficult it is to earn a D-1 volleyball scholarship, and Savannah’s signing with Kent State University is a testament to her hard work and commitment.”

His early memories of her on the volleyball court were, that “it was obvious she was a gifted athlete and that she had enormous potential,” Williams said.

Savannah Matthews dedicated herself to the sport, playing club volleyball for a year with Champaign-based Prime Time while in junior high, for a year with the Mahomet-based Total Training Volleyball Club and for the past three seasons with Bloomington-based Illini Elite.

Matthews was on a club team last spring that placed third nationally in the 17-and-under age bracket and she earned All-America recognition.

“Savannah is the type of player her teammates want to play with and who younger players in our program aspire to be like,” Williams said. “Savannah is the type of player who, although many coaches develop game plans to stop her, often-times you simply have to concede that she is going to get her points, and you have to try to limit the damage from elsewhere.

“Savannah is so much more than a hitter. She is a complete player as evidenced by the fact that she was at or near the top in several (area) statistical categories.”

The 5-foot-10 standout shifted from middle hitter to outside hitter midway through her prep career.

As a junior, Matthews amassed 392 kills and 350 digs.

As a senior, she totaled 338 kills and 297 digs for a 20-win team.

As a Bulldog, Matthews collected more than 1,000 career kills. By the end of her freshman season, she was a varsity starter for the first volleyball team to win a regional title at M-S in 19 years.

For the Matthews family, that meant everything had come full circle.

The 1996 M-S regional championship team was led by a junior outside hitter named Michelle Matthews.

“I feel truly privileged and honored to have coached a player of Savannah’s caliber,” Williams said.

Before settling on Kent State, Savannah Matthews also visited Morehead (Ky.) State, Purdue and the University of Tennessee.

She heard a recurring theme from athletes at each of the institutions.

“A lot of girls I talked to said they got a certain feeling (about which college to pick),” Matthews said. ‘For a lot of schools, I didn’t feel that.

“At Kent State, I was like, ‘This is it.’ It was a more homey-type feeling.”

The teenager wants her college career to be the next step, not the final destination.

“I plan to play professionally after college,” she said.

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