Navy's Van Matre is short of stature but long on talent

Bill Tanton

September 09, 1993|By Bill Tanton

ANNAPOLIS -- Jason Blake Van Matre. Sounds like some spoiled kid from a snooty boarding school, right?

Well, Navy's Jason Van Matre is a far cry from that.

Smallish but tough and dedicated, Van Matre is the quintessential Naval Academy football player except for one thing: he probably has more talent than anyone who has played here in recent years.

Though only 5 feet 10 and 185 pounds, Van Matre can do just about anything on a football field.

He's the co-captain, with linebacker Javier Zuluaga, of this year's team, which opens its season Saturday at Virginia, ranked No. 14 in the nation.

Van Matre is Navy's tailback. For now. Van Matre always starts the season at tailback.

But as the year wears on and Navy suddenly finds itself in need of a receiver or even a starting quarterback, coach George Chaump knows he can turn to No. 5, Van Matre.

He always does, and the versatile blond from Pensacola, Fla., has never let him down.

As a quarterback, Van Matre was the MVP of the 1991 Army-Navy game. Five times he has been named to the All-East weekly honor roll. He has been Navy's leading ground gainer the last two years.

Last season, Van Matre started the first two games at tailback. Then Jim Kubiak went out with a dislocated shoulder and Van Matre started the next nine games at quarterback.

Now Kubiak is back, bigger by 20 pounds. Chaump calls him Navy's catalyst. The coach says Kubiak, a junior, "has what it takes to be an outstanding quarterback."

Everyone around here is keeping his fingers crossed in hopes that Kubiak stays healthy and Van Matre can spend the year at tailback.

"Jason is more in his element at tailback," Chaump said yesterday at his weekly news conference.

"I know Jim is going to stay healthy," says Van Matre.

"Half our team was at College Park last week to see Virginia beat Maryland [43 -29]. Virginia's new quarterback, Symmion Willis, is talented, but Kubiak has a stronger arm. The best part of Virginia's game was their big fullback [238-pound Charles Way]."

Sit down and talk with Van Matre and you get a lot of straight talk.

"We might be better off starting the season with a smaller team than Virginia," he admitted yesterday. (Virginia beat Navy, 53-0, in last year's opener).

"I don't want to play a patsy schedule. I don't want to play an Ivy League schedule either, although I'm not knocking the Ivies. But it's not realistic for us to play a schedule with the first five opponents we had last year [Virginia, Boston College, Rutgers, North Carolina and Air Force].

"We had terrible luck the last two years [1-10 seasons]. It was really frustrating to work as hard as we did and have such a bad record.

"We have 28 seniors now who've never been on a winning team. This year's team has the best attitude of any since I've been here. We have to prove we're a better team than our record shows."

Is Chaump a good coach?

"Sure he is," said Van Matre. "He's so soft-spoken he seems like a grandfather. This year he's been very upbeat. We all know he's genuine in everything he says. A team starts to believe in its coach.

"The biggest thing for us is knowing how to win. That's what we're working on -- refusing to lose."

How does Van Matre expect to be used this year?

"They're going to put me all over the place," he said.

Is it hard for Navy to recruit top football talent?

"Definitely," he said. "It's easy for civilian schools to recruit against us. They keep telling kids about our five-year service commitment. That discourages a lot of them.

"We had a good tailback lined up to come here this year, but Notre Dame kept calling him and calling him. The kid's at Notre Dame now."

Did Van Matre, as a student at B.T. Washington High, dream of going to the Naval Academy?

"I didn't even know where this place was until I got here," he said. "I didn't have a very good senior season and a lot of colleges backed off me. Navy got me here on a recruiting visit and the place just hit me right."

Any regrets?

"There are times when you wonder why you came here," he said, "but the best part of this whole place is the guys you meet here. There are no people in the world I'd rather be with than these guys."

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