If you follow high school boys’ volleyball you've probably heard of Northeastern coach Matt Wilson a few times.
One of the most successful coaches throughout the entire state over his time with the Bobcats, Wilson and winning have become almost one in the same.
Wilson understandably lives and breathes volleyball on most days. He was a former standout at Northeastern before doing the same at Ohio State in college. He’s coached the Bobcats to four state titles in addition to numerous District 3 and York-Adams League crowns. He’s also involved with the Northeastern club team, which will battle for a national title this summer.
But there’s more to the coach that has led the Bobcats to three-straight PIAA Class AA titles. Did you know that he has a son that – much to his family’s surprise – is a standout swimmer? Did you know that he was also a pretty decent basketball player? Did you know that he’s been coaching at Northeastern for over 20 years now? Did you know that he once coached a team that finished with a 1-10 record?
We found out a lot of interesting things about Wilson when we recently caught up with him to talk about volleyball, his life and the success of his children for this edition of Sports Q&A.
What do you remember about your days as a player at Northeastern and how does that compare with what is happening in the sport today?
A: “Well, from a high school perspective, I think the game has come a long way. When I played in high school, I played basketball and I really just showed up for the volleyball season. Unlike today where guys are coming into the high school season, around the state, having already played a full slate of volleyball for various clubs around the state. I know locally, the high school clubs do like seven or eight if not nine tournaments from November to late February. I would say that is the No. 1 difference is the amount of time and energy that players nowadays put into the sport. And I think the second difference is conditioning. When I played, there was much less emphasis on speed training, strength training and jump training. I would tell you that when I came through I was at the very early beginnings of what is now a pretty rigorous strength training, speed training and jump training program that young athletes are into. And third, I would say is the evolution of a personal trainer. We didn’t have that and I’m not sure there was such a thing back when I played. And personally I didn’t see any of this until I got to Ohio State. I think what was showing up on the campuses of colleges back in the 1990’s is now showing up on the various campuses of high school programs around the country. And on the college scene they’ve taken it to even a higher level than when I was there.”
What is your opinion of all these changes?
A: “I think it’s just mind-blowing to see the transformation of high school sports and the ultra-transformation of high school sports, volleyball included in all of that. I’m sure you’ve seen that too. Have you been up to Penn State and seen their nutrition area right outside of the weight-room there? Ohio State did this about two years ago and it's happened at a couple of other places too, but if you go to Penn State right now and see the renovations, I believe it’s called the Lash Center, and when you come out of the weight-room, I believe they are building a sort of nutrition bar. It’s where athletes can go and get nutritional shakes and fruit and stuff. It’s all healthy thing and that kind of stuff didn’t exist when I was in college. It’s really kind of crazy how it’s all changed.”
Your experiences at Ohio State as a player, has that been helpful for you in bringing these changes to your program at the high school level?
A: “Yeah, I believe what you see at Northeastern is very similar to what you’ll see at most college programs for the most part. In terms of the emphasis on strength training and other areas, but also in the intensity with the way we practice. We tend to go pretty hard at practices. I think that pretty much everything that they implemented when I was at Ohio State is something that I’ve brought into our gym.”
How long have you been coaching at Northeastern?
A: “This year will be my 21st season.”
Looking back from that first year to today, how have things changed for you as a coach?
A: “I would say that I look at this year’s squad that we have and I think back to some of my early years coaching and the level of experience with the game and the level of IQ for the game is different. (Players) are so knowledgeable now and, looking back in the early 90’s, my volleyball team would show up in March. And, in some cases, these guys were new to the game. And in just a few weeks we had to get them ready to play. We were scrambling and doing 3-hour practices because we were trying to teach the game as well as try to mold the athletes into the roles we were trying to develop. Now it’s very different. Most players, because of playing in the summer, most of the big-time volleyball players in the state play all summer long. I didn’t do that and I struggled to find others that wanted to play. It was just my brother and I and a couple of his friends that would get together every once in a while. Now with social media it’s easy for a kid from Northeastern to communicate with someone at Hempfield and say, ‘Hey, let’s meet somewhere and get a bunch of our friends and let’s go play.’ I couldn’t do that back in 1991, when I was a high school senior. Either your friends wanted to go play or you didn’t have anyone to play with.”
Do you coach more than the high school team?
A: “Nowadays that’s pretty much all that I do. At one point I helped to coach the Keystone State games. But really now, from a coaching standpoint, volleyball-wise it’s just the high school and we do have a club program as well, but predominantly the high school.”
Aren’t you taking a team to nationals this summer?
A: “Yeah, that’s part of the club team stuff. And that’s pretty much the high school team. We are picking up some others to go to nationals with us, but predominantly it’s our guys. I don’t know how many more years that I’ll do that.”
Yeah, 20-plus years nowadays is quite an accomplishment.
A: “Yeah. I think that’s one of the biggest problems that we have going on today in sports. The lack of tenure as head coach at the varsity levels. I think a lot of coaches want immediate gratification. They want to pick up the clipboard after they get approved as the head coach and just think that it’s miraculously going to happen for them overnight. The reality is that it doesn’t. I always have to tell the story of when I went through a season when we were 1-11. And I probably learned more through that 1-11 situation than at almost any other time my career. To win a lot you have to lose a lot and it wasn’t like I just picked up a clipboard and we were just ultra-successful. It just doesn’t work that way. And, unfortunately, I think for high school sports right now and I know it’s happening in football and it’s happening in volleyball as well, the turnover is just excruciating to watch the number of coaches that get turned over and it’s sickening to watch. Or some coach just for their own kids and once they go through the program, in many cases they just walk away. I didn’t have any kids when I first coached, which is over two decades of coaching, and just now do I start to have kids in the program. And we’ll have to see whether or not they stick with it. But I do really think that we’re short-changing athletes with this turnover.”
Obviously Coach (Brad) Livingston at Central York and what happened to him was a shame. I’m pretty sure that every volleyball player and coach throughout the state had a high level of respect for him. You agree?
A: “Yeah. When you have coaches that have been around for 10-plus years, there’s more to it than just the sports aspect of it. There’s a lot of life and mentoring that goes into it. And I feel that’s where some of these athletes get short changed. They don’t get the time to develop more than just a sports relationship. It’s sports only and that’s all that it is. I tend to believe that there’s more to a coach than the sport itself. And I think the loss of Brad is a pretty big deal. But fortunately for us at Northeastern and the rest of York County, that it was only natural for Todd Goodling to take the reins and he’s someone that I think will solidify Central and their boys’ volleyball program. I think they’ll be ultra-successful going forward now.”
You are not a high school teacher. How does that help or hurt you as being a head coach?
A: “Well my answer would be that there are positives and negatives to each. You know, the old pros and cons. I think that the negative is that it’s a little harder to find the athlete and recruit the athlete and some of that stuff. But, the positives for someone like myself is that I don’t need to fight for gym time right after school. I’m more than satisfied to take the late slots for practices that no teachers seem to want. For me the 7 o’clock slot is perfect for me and the teachers are all trying to get the 3 o’clock slot. But at the end of the day, it all comes down to commitment. Your commitment to the program and helping the athlete succeed. And not just developing their dream but also achieving that dream. That’s sort of your job and your role as a coach.”
That kind of leads into my next question. Being a coach for so long and now you’re a parent of a son (Drew) who is very successful in another sport, swimming. Has dealing with parents all these years shaped your expectations and behaviors as a supportive parent?
A: “For my son Drew and what he’s been able to accomplish is, to be honest with you, just one of the finest moments for me. To watch him be pretty successful early in his swimming career at Northeastern, I’m just elated. From a coach standpoint I feel fantastic for Coach (Dan) Schaeberle, his swim coach. I think for him it’s probably been a pretty good situation. But as a parent, it is different. I’ve coached my youngest son (Nate) in basketball through the youth program so I never really was the fan in the stand or the parent in the stand. I always was, for the most part, the coach at the end of the bench. My friends joke with me that I don’t say an awful lot or get too animated in the stands, but I try not to because I’ve seen all of the good and the bad with parent-coach relationship. Not for me personally, but with many others that I’ve been around. I try to be very mindful about that being a coach myself. It is very different and I’ll tell you that, but at the same time, it’s a sport that I’m not overly familiar with myself. And for my wife and I and our family, as Drew has become more successful we’ve all learned an awful lot. But I’m fine with letting Coach Schaeberle and Drew sort of handle that and we put our trust in Coach Schaeberle, which I think is the smart thing to do.”
You must be impressed with the dedication that high school swimmers show right?
A: “I have a whole new respect for that sport. That’s a very demanding and time consuming sport and I know how much time we put in with our (volleyball) program. And I’m sure that swimmers at Dallastown and Central and other powerhouses are doing at least as much in the mornings. You’re there in the pool at 5:30 in the morning and then you’re back at it at 3 o’clock. It’s pretty amazing the level of dedication that these young swimmers or swimmers in general have for the sport. All I can say is that I tip my cap to them. It’s pretty special to see.”
When you were watching Drew win the 200 freestyle at the York-Adams League meet a few weeks ago, what was going through your mind?
A: “It was a little different. You learn to trust the athlete. I, just again, was just smiling from ear to ear upon his finish. But I was a bit apprehensive there that we got a good start off the block. Once he entered the water, I just said to myself ‘He’s in his element.' That’s my biggest worry for him is probably the very beginning at the block to start. But once he was in the water my nerves were pretty calm. It’s just ‘Do what you were trained to do.’ That’s how I look at it.”
How did Drew find his way – with both you and you wife, Teresa, as former volleyball players and coaches – into swimming of all things?
A: (Laughs) “It started in elementary school when he picked it up. Obviously, I can’t take credit for it and neither can my wife. He’s always had a love for the pool and just gave it a try and he stuck with it and things have worked out so far. But obviously he’s in for a bigger test as they move onto districts. It will be a whole different ballgame for him there. But we’ll see if it happens. I’m pulling for him.”
— Reach Ryan Vandersloot at email@example.com.