It was a little past the midway point of the 2013 season when Belleville East boys volleyball coach Stefanie Gaubatz made the decision to try junior John Mathews at the setter position.
Although a superior athlete, the 6-foot Mathews was a bit of an undersized outside hitter. But in the mind of Gaubatz, Mathews had all the intangibles needed to be an elite setter in the Southwestern Conference.
"John had the knowledge of the game, he had the experience and he had the athleticism," Gaubatz said. "Plus, he had the court awareness and he had the respect of his teammates.
"John is also a very smart player who we thought would do a great job of making decisions with the ball. In our offense, the setter touches the ball every single time."
Running the Lancers high-powered 5-1 offense to perfection, Mathews has East near the top of the standings in the rugged Southwestern Conference. Currently 9-2 on the season, the Lancers are in second place with a 3-1 mark in league play heading into a big match at Edwardsville on Thursday.
"Being the setter is kind of like being the quarterback on a football team or a pitcher on a baseball team. Everything goes through you,'' Mathews said. "It was tough at first, but in our 5-1 offense It gives me the opportunity to touch the ball on every play. I like that.
"The big difference this year over last year is that we're more consistent. We have a lot more confidence. That's a big part of it.''
A full-time setter at the high school level for just 11 games, Mathews will be playing the position for four more years at Bendectine University in suburban Lisle near Chicago.
An NCAA Division III school, Benedictine is starting a men's volleyball program in the fall.
"I'm excited about it. It's a first-year program and they recruited me to be their No. 1 setter," Mathews said. "I'll be getting a lot of playing time. That was important to me. I wanted to go somewhere where I could play.''
The fact that Mathews will be playing college volleyball is a bit surprising in that he has been playing the sport for just over four years.
Primarily a basketball and soccer player while growing up, Mathews first played volleyball at Wolf Branch School while he was in the eighth grade.
"I just really liked it. It was just so much different then any of the other port I had played in my life. It was just fun,'' Mathews said. "When it came to high school I was going to either play volleyball or run the 400 meters on the track team. I picked volleyball.''
Mathews also played soccer during his freshmen and sophomore years at East. But volleyball has been his only sport the past two seasons.
Mathews said the decision to switch from outside hitter to setter was a wise one because of his height. But somewhat quiet off the court, becoming more of a vocal leader this spring has been a bit of a challenge.
"Playing club volleyball last summer really taught me a lot about being a leader,'' Mathews said. "I've never been a leader before and so its been tough. I'm not loud. I try to be vocal when I can, but I've always been a quiet player."
Mathews has led by example. Averaging just under 18 assists per match with 197 for the season, Mathews has spread the ball around to the many talented hitters on the Lancers roster.
Josiah Bergt (100 kills) and Austin Cox (79 kills) lead the Lancers attack.
Mathews said the goal for the rest of the season is to keep improving and hopefully win a regional title.
"With our hitters, if we're all playing together and playing well I think we'll be tough to beat,'' Mathews said. "The regional title would be nice and then we'll see. Minooka would be in our sectional and they've got a left-handed outside (hitter) who is 6-8 and was just selected to the junior-national team. That would be tough."
Contact reporter Dean Criddle at 239-2661 or email@example.com