If it seems like things are coming easy to Mark Matthews in the early goings of his NLL career, that shouldn’t come as too much of a shock.
The NLL’s Rookie of the Month for January and the leading first-year points producer through Week 5, the No. 1 overall draft pick is benefitting from his familiarity with members of the Edmonton Rush roster, and the bench, too. As a Junior A player who got around a bit, Matthews played alongside the likes of Curtis Knight and John LaFontaine in Whitby, with Jeff Cornwall in Coquitlam (winning a Minto Cup in 2010, to boot), and he’s played against guys like Kyle Rubisch, Chris Corbeil and Corey Small.
“There’s a lot of guys here that I’ve played with, some guys I’ve played with or against my whole life,” said Matthews, a Team 22 sponsored athlete. “Having played with some of the guys has helped my transition. … It’s nice because you get a couple practices in and you start to become familiar with one another and start to know what to expect out of other guys.”
Matthews, like a number of Rush players, hails from Ontario and went through the Whitby Warriors Junior A program, coached for the last three seasons by Rush head coach Derek Keenan. Knowing what to expect out of Keenan, too, has allowed Matthews to be comfortable on the floor and quickly assume a spot as the team’s offensive leader. Whether by plan or not, the rookie forward is leading the team in shots (54). And he’s also tied with Ryan Ward for the team lead for points with 21 (on 10 goals and 11 assists). Matthews credits his coach with making that come easier than planned.
“I came in knowing the system, having played for him, and knowing what he wants,” he said. “And he kind of knows what I want to succeed as a player. He has done a good job with that.”
If anyone knows how to utilize the 6-4, 210-pound lefty, it’s Keenan. In 2011, Matthews played his final summer of Junior A ball, helping lead the Whitby Warriors to the Minto Cup and notching 73 points in the regular season and a whopping 87 in the postseason run. That win came over the Coquitlam Adanacs — ironically, the team Matthews had guided to the Minto Cup the year before.
“I got to know him pretty well that summer, and you know he sure helped us, he was a big part of us,” Keenan said. “We saw how bad he wants to win and how hard he will work. Combine that with his natural abilities and size, you just knew he was going to be a good pro.”
Being a pro for a season of Major League Lacrosse also allowed for a friendly segue for Matthews, who registered 19 goals and nine assists as a rookie attackman with the Denver Outlaws before being drafted first overall by the Rush. Matthews credits that experience as another boost to his game as he prepared to make the jump to the pro indoor ranks, especially considering he hadn’t played since the 2011 run to the Minto Cup.
“Going into the year not having played box for a little while, playing Major League Lacrosse got me ready because I was playing against bigger, stronger guys and a lot of those guys have played box too, so that experience was good.”
Matthews’ friendly, easy-going nature, Keenan says, also helped him quickly fit in with the Rush players.
“The guys really like him. He’s a fun-loving kid and he always seems to have a good time with the other players. They respect his abilities and some of the older guys keep him in check, too, which is good.”
Matthews also credits his teammates for welcoming him, allowing him to play his game. He also says he’s greatly benefited from going against two of the top one-on-one defenders in the game, Rubisch and Corbeil, in practice.
“What those guys do everday is pretty tough and it makes going into the games a lot easier,” Matthews said. “You seem to have more time (in gameplay) than you do in practice. I think our goaltending and our defense is some of the best if not the best in the league.”
Though he gives a lot of praise to his teammates, there’s no denying Matthews’ early success, as he’s already established himself as one of the league’s premier first-year players. But both Matthews and his coach say he is a long way from being the elite player many believe he is capable of becoming.
Matthews says he wants to just stay focused on staying in shape so that he can develop as a player over the course of time and stay healthy. Experience, he says, is what makes the best lacrosse players blossom and take their game to the next level.
“You’ve got to play enough lacrosse in order to gain that experience, and that is what I’m going to continue to do,” Matthews said. “I want to have a long career.”
“He’s still got a long way to go,” Keenan said. “He’s done well early, mainly on natural ability. At that size and strength, with tremendous skill, those are his two biggest assets, without even getting into his passion. He loves to win. He’s just a physically gifted kid. To have that playing style and that much skill to go with that size — there’s not many kids like that.”
Rate This Story: