It won’t be hard to spot North Carolina defensive midfielder Jake Matthai in Monday’s NCAA lacrosse title game at Lincoln Financial Field, not with his 6-foot-6, 230-pound frame and exceptional play at one of sport’s often unheralded positions.
His teammates will certainly be aware of Matthai, one of the most influential voices in a program seeking its first national title since 1991.
“His leadership and commitment and presence is off the chart for this team – locker room, on the field, off the field,” North Carolina coach Joe Breschi said. “He took ownership, and he’s one of the best leaders we have.”
Matthai’s impact as both a second-team All-America pick and behind-the-scenes force has nudged the unseeded Tar Heels (11-6) to their deepest point in the tournament in 23 years. They’ll face top-seeded Maryland (17-2), which is trying to win its first title since 1975.
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For Matthai, it will conclude a college career enriching in multiple contexts. The senior graduated this month as a double major in studio art and communications, and his fascination with art provided a valuable balance to lacrosse throughout his time in Chapel Hill.
Matthai credits Karl Connolly, the chair of the visual arts program at the Gilman School in Baltimore, for sparking an interest in high school that he was determined to foster in college.
“I had a tremendous teacher who pushed me beyond my boundaries as an artist and as a person,” Matthai said. “He really helped me learn to have an appreciation and generate a passion for art. So when I came to Carolina, it was a no-brainer. Regardless of the program and what it was going to offer me, I knew I wanted to pursue art.”
It created an interesting duality to Matthai’s days. In a typical semester, he would take a pair of art classes that both met for three hours twice a week. That’s a stark contrast to the challenges playing defense presented him.
“It was a place for me to blow off steam, become immersed in something completely different from lacrosse,” Matthai said. “That alone was so beneficial.”
It helped craft an invaluable cerebral perspective for these Tar Heels, who started the season 3-3 and needed a frantic comeback against Notre Dame in its next-to-last game prior to the NCAA tournament to even earn an NCAA tournament berth.
Yet North Carolina eventually figured things out with Matthai’s help and flattened both Notre Dame and Loyola in consecutive contests to reach the final.
“He’s definitely led this team right from the beginning when we were struggling and stuck with us,” senior attackman Steve Pontrello said. “He knows exactly what to say in the right moments. We definitely lean on him.”
Matthai concedes he’s an emotional person, but realized early on it was important for this particular team to see different kinds of emotion at various junctures. It meant speaking up when necessary, but also backing off at times to allow underclassmen to figure some things out on their own.
He learned plenty along the way in his own career, from handling disappointing quarterfinal losses as a freshman and junior to the Tar Heels’ unexpected breakthrough to the season’s final weekend this month. It culminates Monday with the chance to put North Carolina back atop the men’s lacrosse world for the first time in a quarter-century.
“It is not just one year of work,” Matthai said. “This is four years’ worth of work that these seniors have put in and then obviously down the line. I’m so happy the freshmen get to experience this now in their first year. It wasn’t something I got to do. Experiencing a lot of disappointment was difficult, but it shaped the seniors into the men we are today who were able to get this team where we are now.”