It’d be easy for Andy Matthews to do things his way.
The North Carolina lacrosse team’s senior attackman and leading setup man knows the game and was practically born into it. He has the talent, too; Matthews was a U.S. Lacrosse first-team All-American in high school, and UNC was just one elite lacrosse school from which he fielded recruitment offers.
This season, Matthews is one of eight Tar Heels with double-digit goals. But much more important for UNC are his team-leading 14 assists.
“I would say my greatest strength is being smart, knowing what to do with the ball and without the ball,” Matthews said. “Just having a knowledge of the offense, knowing where people should be and trying to find the open man.”
Far from doing things his way, Matthews plays the game unselfishly, helping UNC lacrosse to a 7-3 record so far in 2019.
“I kind of just try and play the way that I was raised to play,” Matthews said, ”which is always try and share the ball and try and get the best opportunity that we can.”
For Matthews, that team-first emphasis began at a young age. He started playing sports at around 5 years old, growing up in the lacrosse hotbed of Baltimore.
“He did take to lacrosse early,” his dad, Mickey Matthews, said. “I mean, it’s
Baltimore. He probably had a stick in his crib.”
It wasn’t just the city he was raised in, though. Andy’s parents both played college lacrosse – his mom also played field hockey at Richmond, while his dad was an All-American at Brown.
His two older siblings also played high-level lacrosse. Andy’s brother played at Rutgers, while his sister won three national championships at Northwestern.
“I could never live up to her,” Andy said with a laugh.
At Gilman School in Baltimore, Andy was coached by his uncle. His dad coached his club team, which also featured Timmy Kelly, Kevin Walker and Jack Halpert, all current teammates of Andy's at UNC.
“Their expectations were always really high, but I knew they always wanted what’s best for me,” Andy said.
Later, Andy explained how his dad alleviated any possible pressure coming with the weight of such expectations.
“Even when I would play terrible, he wouldn’t be mad at me,” Andy said. “I could just sense he was disappointed, which made it better because I responded to that better.”
Andy was always a good player and natural athlete – he played varsity basketball at Gilman and was all-conference on the school’s soccer team, but it wasn’t until around ninth grade that he started taking lacrosse more seriously.
“He really started to work at it,” Mickey said. “That’s when he put in the extra time. You could see that he cared a little bit more.”
For Andy, extra effort quickly resulted in a scholarship offer from UNC head coach Joe Breschi, who saw Andy in a summer tournament. Andy committed the summer before his sophomore year of high school.
“It was honestly pretty crazy,” Andy said. “I was just a freshman in high school, I had no idea what I wanted, but I really lucked out with getting the opportunity to come here. I don’t think I realized just how great everything is here.”
Weighing offers from other elite lacrosse schools – including Duke, Maryland and Johns Hopkins, which is just five minutes away from his house – Andy decided to play for North Carolina, a place his dad described as Andy’s “dream school.”
“We have pictures of Andy when he was 5 years old, wearing Carolina gear around the house,” Mickey said. “That’s always been his goal.”
That’s partly because Andy’s uncle also played lacrosse for the Tar Heels, winning a national championship with the team in 1991. During Andy’s first-year campaign, that 1991 team was honored during halftime of a game to commemorate its 25th anniversary, and the Tar Heels would finish the 2016 season with an NCAA title of their own.
Together, Andy’s dad and uncle ingrained in him a propensity to play the game the right way.
“We definitely emphasized, ‘You have to do your part. You have to lead,’” Mickey said. “Playing the right way means making the right decisions, taking or not taking the right shots and just being smart. He doesn’t care who scores. I think you see that.”
Ten games into the 2019 season, Andy is second on the team in points with 25, with his 14 assists being a big reason why. If you ask Andy, he’ll credit the talent around him.
“I’ve been surrounded by incredible shooters my entire time here,” Andy said, going on to give a laundry list of recent UNC attackmen. Talk to him for any amount of time, and that’ll soon become a consistent theme: team first, Andy second.
“He doesn’t care about points; he just cares about winning the game,” teammate Timmy Kelly added. “Some of his best games are not even the ones where he has the most assists. It’s the ones where he’s getting other people open, making the second assist, similar to a Klay Thompson.”
All three of Timmy Kelly, Andy and his dad brought up the comparison of the Golden State Warriors, an interesting cross-sport model for how UNC lacrosse aims to play.
“They just don’t care who’s scoring when it comes down to crunch time, as long as they win,” Andy said of the reigning two-time NBA champions. “They’ve developed a culture of passing.”
It turns out that a lot of points of emphasis in basketball – spacing, player movement, getting the ball moving side to side and, most crucially, unselfishness – apply to lacrosse as well. Andy still has a love for hoops, finding time to play with teammates in the offseason to stay in shape.
“It’s so dynamic. You can be anything in a game,” Andy said. “If you’re hot shooting, you can be a 3-point shooter. If you’re not shooting well, you can be someone who’s facilitating or driving and kicking it out to people.”
Andy’s ability to think through the game is mirrored by an off-the-field intelligence, exemplified by his 3.8 GPA in high school and All-ACC Academic Team distinction in his sophomore year.
Kelly, who first met Andy in fifth grade, remembers one instance where Andy’s natural intelligence really came to the fore: the first test in a history class that the two took together at UNC.
“He doesn’t even look at the freaking book, and he gets like a 90,” Kelly laughed.
Together with some teammates, Andy lives in a house that has been passed down to them by past Tar Heels. The group has fun with an Instagram account called Dojo Enterprise, where they post pictures of themselves and funny videos.
One post featured a picture of the group’s “Wall of Legends,” with cutouts of people like Muhammad Ali, Tupac Shakur and, of course, Pablo Sanchez from the Backyard Baseball video games.
Another person on the wall is director Stanley Kubrick.
“We love watching movies at the house. He was one of our favorites,” Andy said. “Obviously 2001: A Space Odyssey is just a sick movie. We watched that as a house. We watch a lot of movies as a house.”
Dojo Enterprise, and the Wall of Legends, serve as a creative outlet for members of the UNC lacrosse team, a group that is interested in movies and video production.
“A bunch of guys have taken screenwriting classes and video classes, and that’s one of the things that our house really loves,” Andy said.
An economics major who hopes to work in finance, Andy also became interested in creative writing in Chapel Hill, specifically poetry, a hobby that he calls “relieving.”
“Econ is just so structured, and you have to do it this way,” Andy said. “That’s why I do the creative writing stuff, because it’s the opposite of my major, and I can actually have fun with it.”
Andy credits UNC faculty for encouraging his newfound passion, a hidden talent of his that has impressed teammates.
“He’s actually really gifted,” Kelly said. “It’s pretty funny; you wouldn’t expect it. He’s one of those people. It kind of comes naturally for him.”
As for Andy himself, it was as if he was back on the lacrosse field: when given praise, he deferred to his peers.
“They’re a lot better than I was at it,” Andy said sheepishly of his classmates. “But I just really enjoyed hearing all of their stuff.”
Whether on the field or off, Andy Matthews tries to spread the wealth.
“It makes sense in my mind,” Andy said. “That’s why they throw it to me, because they know that they’ll get it back.”
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