By Ralph Epifanio
Chasing after Stetson's assistant cross country coach proved to be a challenging affair. At 27, the first-year coach easily fits in with his 2010 team; he's young, energetic, and could give any one of them-not to mention this interviewer--a run for their money.
Joe (along with his younger brother, Dan) is a product of the Peter Hopfe/Flagler-Palm Coast HS juggernaut of the early 2000s, having run with such legends as Mike and Matt Cianciulli, and Chris Batista. After graduation, he went on to star with the elder Mike Cianciulli at Stetson, under then head coach John Boyle.
"When I was in high school, he (Mike) was the #1 runner in the area," explained Matuszczak. "As a freshman in high school, I looked up to him. When I came to Stetson in 2001, although Mike was a senior, I wanted to compete with him. He held the 8K school record; something like 27:20. The whole summer before my freshman year, I built a huge base, running 100+ miles a week. Mike was the top Stetson finisher in the first two or three races, and then in the next couple, I finished first. I think, at the end of the year, we were co-MVPs.
"I could have run two or three hours a day and done nothing else, or had a life. After Mike graduated, and the competition at Stetson lessened, I ran progressively slower. In eight out of ten years, a freshman is the best runner, and then they fall off."
Thus, Joe has both the wisdom and experience with which to re-build the Hatter program.
"There has never been a consequence for missing practice. There has to be. A team improves together. You may never win a race, but by doing well, it allows your team to win. I feel competition within the team is especially important."
Also evident is the level of competition within Division 1.
"Because we toed the line with UF at Mt. Dew doesn't mean that we were competing with them. It is a much bigger school, but without the barriers-such as cost-of Stetson. Their tuition is less, and they may have eight full ride scholarships, thus are 'a fully funded program.' Plus, I think they're sponsored by Nike, and they get a lot of exposure. They can get whomever they want. If the best kids want to run at school, they go to UF or FS.
"Hopefully, we will find the teams that we can compete with. But right now, we have to do that within ourselves. If so, it will correlate with other teams. If your guys run together every day, they have to hold each other accountable. If you pass a teammate in a race who usually runs ahead of you in practice, you need to say, 'Let's go man.'"
Matuszczak, for now, is their shadow, and maybe even their conscience. Every morning, long before the sun comes up, he is out there, running with them, step for step.
"For the first few weeks, I tried to get to know something about them; what their PRs were, (based upon their fitness level) where they'd "drop" (fall off the pace) at different distances, etc."
And he talks to them.
"Every single kid is opening up, more and more, as the weeks go by. There are more conversations...but some are introverted."
What he has learned is encouraging.
"Stetson definitely gets the talent, capable of running good times. What we have to do is keep the athletes running year round. I want to try to instill dedication. And I think, if we can do those things, everyone is going to run faster than they did at UF."
Joe points to some positive developments.
"Take Peter Davis, for example. Andrew (Epifanio) and Kyle (Burton) are usually together up front, but there are days that Peter pushes the pace. He definitely has sub-30 times in him. Last year he ran 33:38 at Mt. Dew, and this year he improved to 31:37."
What's the magic ingredient?
"The key is a strong base. We have kids who have never run 10 miles. Those athletes who have run great 8K times in major programs have run 100-120 mile weeks. With an improvement in the base, will come an improvement in times. With a bigger base, and with rest and a good diet, it's amazing what the body can accomplish."
And no doubt having an enthusiastic and fleet-footed coach hot on your heels won't hurt either.