Athlete of the Week: Connor Mathes looks back on leadership, competition and leaping saves

| Senior Sports Editor

Men’s soccer’s goalkeeper, senior Connor Mathes, began his college career over three years ago at Division I Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Now Mathes, who is from Overland Park, Kansas, is preparing for his final regular season game as a Washington University Bear. Mathes won the University Athletic Association Defensive Player of the Week award earlier this week after leading the Bears to two victories over the weekend, 3-1 over Carnegie Mellon University on Friday and 2-0 over Case Western Reserve University on Sunday. He made a career-high six saves against Carnegie Mellon and has allowed just .86 goals per game this season. Mathes and I sat down ahead of men’s soccer’s regular season finale against Chicago, which is this coming Saturday at 1:30 p.m.

Courtesy of Danny Reise

Senior Connor Mathes launches a ball out of the goal area. Mathes won the University Athletic Association Defensive Player of the Week award earlier this week after leading the Bears to two victories over the weekend, 3-1 over Carnegie Mellon University on Friday and 2-0 over Case Western Reserve University on Sunday.

Student Life: I read online that when you were a senior in high school, you were the keeper for your team in a state championship win that went to four overtimes. What was that like?

Connor Mathes: The game started, I want to say, at about 3 o’clock and it went all the way through when the sun was down. It was a weird game. We went through four overtimes, compiling about 40 minutes, and then went to [penalty kicks] and then ended up winning in five or six. It was a long game but definitely a fun experience. A lot of the school came out to watch because we were pretty good that year—a humble brag, I guess. They were very supportive and I had a lot of friends there so that was a fun thing.

SL: How do you deal with the pressure in a situation like that, when everyone has come out to see you and you’re the only thing standing between the person shooting the ball and the back of that net?

CM: I think the pressure is something that I enjoy a lot. In practice, it’s really easy to work on things with such low pressure, just because if you get scored on it doesn’t matter. But then once you get into the games, you’ve done these [repetitions] so many times that it’s nice to be able to feel some sort of leadership quality in a way, but also at the same time have the trust in your team that they know that they can count on you. In the same way for me, in those situations when we’re doing penalties, I’m going to trust that they can get their job done and score goals. Then, to be one of the goalies that’s been working all week to be able to step in and have [the team’s] trust is pretty awesome. It’s more of an adrenaline rush, I would say, to have all of that trust and excitement in one moment. Once you make those saves, it’s just affirming all of the practices that you’ve had up to that point to get you to be able to perform in that moment.

SL: I saw a couple leaping saves on Sunday against Case. What goes through your head when you see that ball coming toward you?

CM: With those high balls—that’s something I’ve had to work on a lot, being on the shorter end of the goalkeeper spectrum [Mathes is 5 feet, 9 inches tall]. It’s a lot in your footwork, I think, that I’ve had to make sure that I’m judging balls correctly, and that’s a really difficult task. It’s something that you would think would come naturally, because when you’re tracking the flight of something it’s pretty easy to duck out of the way, so it must be easy to judge it too. But I think it’s one of things, when you have 10 or 15 guys in the same vicinity as you, that judging those balls is a pretty important thing. It’s a split-second decision on making sure that you can judge it, but when you’ve taken hundreds of balls during practice in a given week it gets a little easier. It is almost second nature in a way, just making sure that you’re timing your runs and jumping at the proper time so that your arms are above everyone else so that you can make those saves.

SL: Going back to get some of your personal history. You transferred to Wash. U. after two years at Duquesne College, a Division I school—how did you decide on Wash. U.? What made you transfer here?

CM: I like to say that soccer was the reason that pushed me away from Duquesne and then Wash. U.’s academics were what brought me here. I really aspired to be on a winning program and Duquesne’s definitely done better but in terms of where we were my sophomore year, but I just saw a lot of promise in this program. As a pre-med student trying to go to medical school I think there aren’t many better options than Wash. U., and being from Kansas City it was close to home. It gave me an opportunity to both pursue my academic and athletic careers. I never wanted to take soccer to a professional level—I’ve always had my sights set on a professional medical career. I think this university gave me the academic foundation better than my old school to do that while also giving me a great, storied coach and a great group of guys that are incredibly talented to make a push for some great success in soccer.

SL: Before the last regular season game of your career on Saturday against Chicago, what’s a moment that stands out to you or a memory that you think encapsulates your experience on the soccer team?

CM: I guess this last weekend stood with me. I think it’s because, having my family here and having the families of all the teammates I’ve had, being able to talk to them and being around my teammates and my family during these two games—and obviously these two games went as well as they could have, except for the first minute of the whole weekend. To come back and play well, to have all of the positive comments from all the parents, families and teammates. Even the week in practice was just incredible. It can be tough at times. We’ve had some down losses that we shouldn’t have lost, but I think to really come together as a team this last week, to be able to play well, to be able to get two wins and boost our resume as much as we can, that all encapsulates everything. This weekend, it really didn’t feel like I had skipped a beat by being a transfer. Having what was probably the best weekend of my college career on the weekend of Senior Day, I think that was the pinnacle of being here.

SL: How do you handle the tough losses and the losing streak, particularly when the losses have been in tight games and must be, I imagine, pretty emotionally draining?

CM: I think that in addition to the losses being pretty emotionally draining in terms of not scoring much and losing four games, those were on the road too. Traveling after a loss or traveling during a stretch, it just gets to be pretty mentally tiresome, knowing that you just lost a game but you have a test the next day. A lot of those things just weigh on you, and I think that that’s something that speaks to how important the game is but also how important academics are to all of us. With that hard stretch of not scoring many goals and giving up too many goals that we shouldn’t have, it’s really something that weighs heavily on a team, especially when it comes to practices. People don’t trust as much in each other or they think that people should be doing things differently. It’s easy to start blaming different things, and I think that’s just part of the nature of being frustrated. I don’t think that’s a super big issue. Being able to lessen that to a point. This last week of practice we played a game, probably about every day, [and] that really increased the competition. It really made people want to play for each other. It got us in front of goal, got us used to finishing, to scoring goals. For me, it’s a lot of fun, granted I get scored on a lot more in practice. It’s a lot of fun because I’m getting a lot of shots, a lot of reps. That makes things a lot of fun. The competitive nature of that game was really a turning a turning point, and I think Coach Clarke saw that after the first day, and he just kept pushing this game on us. We had an incredibly fun time but also a competitive time that allowed us to progress ourselves and get out of that slump. It’s not easy when you’re constantly playing a game and then having two days of practice and then to have to travel again. To get on this four-game losing streak, especially in conference, it’s definitely pretty tough.

SL: As one of the four seniors on the team, what was your role during that losing streak? How do you maintain that leadership role even as all this other stuff is going on?

CM: I think that being a leader is definitely rooted in how you’re going to help the team first. It’s not so much delegating—and this is one thing that I’ve learned from Coach Clarke and one thing that he’s taught me—it’s leading by example, but it’s even more than that. It’s leading to serve the people that are trusting in you. I think that is one thing that I definitely appreciate, that I think I have the trust of a lot of my teammates. It’s going out there and setting an example. I don’t like to lose. I like to win, but I hate to lose. That’s one thing that super important. I’ll give you a quick anecdote: We lost one of these [competitive games] 7-0 in practice and I pulled everyone in and people were kind of complaining about ‘Why do we need to come in and talk about this? We just lost,’ and I got in some guys faces and, in a positive manner, started yelling but making sure that I was tactically talking: bringing up what the guys were doing correctly but trying to help them understand what I’m seeing from the back. Making sure that the next game I’m performing myself and keeping that competitive edge. And then when they do something good, making sure that they know that I’m behind them and supporting them in every way that I can. I think being a leader during this stretch is tough, because you have a lot of people that get down, but I think it’s making sure that you keep that competitive edge. You have to keep steady and make sure you rope others into that kind of ideal system with you.

SL: You talked about competition and how that’s been an important thing for the team this year. Do you think it’s fair to say that you’ve been in a position battle this year at keeper?

CM: Absolutely. If you look at the minutes, they’re split pretty evenly [Mathes has played 630, while sophomore keeper Matt Martin has played 754]. I definitely think so. Matt’s done a tremendous job of really changing or improving things that Coach Clarke and [Assistant] Coach Jamie Swanner had talked to him about. You can really tell where he’s improved as a goalkeeper since his freshman year.

SL: What’s that been like for you? Are you guys friends? What’s the relationship like with him when you guys are not sure who is going to be starting the next game?

CM: Matt and I are pretty close. I think I can definitely say that. Being goalkeepers our practices, or at least the first 45 minutes, are always together. We talk about anything during those practices. It’s not always about soccer. We’re definitely close. I think it’s a tough situation when you’re in competition with anybody to really be able to separate those two things, and I think that’s something that we both have done really well. In the end, we’re both striving for the same goal, so there’s nothing like that. It’s definitely tough, being a senior and maybe not getting the minutes at the beginning [of the season] that I wanted to. That’s something that I can’t be upset with him or with what the coach is seeing, because we all want to win. I just have to be upset with how I was performing or what I was showing to the coaches. I think it pushed me a lot. I think competition eliminates complacency. I think that’s something that’s easy to get caught up into, especially when you’re a senior expecting to play. At the beginning, maybe I was pretty upset about not playing and getting pretty frustrated about sitting, having to watch and feeling that I wasn’t contributing as much. In the end, I think it’s telling that whether it’s that you’re pushing the next guy up in practice or whether you’re out there playing in the games, you have an important role. I think that that’s important for everyone to know. The competition has been difficult at times, [and] especially when you’re the one not playing it definitely gets hard. But I think it’s definitely beneficial, not only for the season and improving myself but just for overall life lessons. I think that if you get complacent, there’s always going to be that next guy who’s ready to take that spot from you. I learned a lot. I think I improved a lot as a goalie this year and I think that’s probably partly due to that, because I worked that much harder in practice given the situation that I was in.

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