Spring practice had just gotten underway, and Zach Matthews knew time wasn’t on his side.
Despite being a passionate and intelligent athlete, he had yet to carve out a role with the Lambert football team, and his fourth and final year of high school loomed.
After being shuffled around at a few different positions — namely running back, defensive back and linebacker — Matthews had no idea if he would ever get the chance to make an impact on the varsity squad, let alone start. He had worked hard, though, putting in his time on the field and in the gym.
He didn’t want that work to be for naught; he wanted to see results.
"I figured I had one year to do something," Matthews said, "so I wasn’t going to hold back anything I did. Every time I went out there I made sure every time I gave it my all."
A lot had changed for Matthews since last season, and it didn’t take coaches long to notice.
He was bigger, stronger, faster. There was a certain pop that now emanated from his hits; the kind of pop that forces coaches, scouts and spectators to take notice.
In the months leading up to Lambert’s season opener Matthews evolved from a second- or third-stringer to a bona fide starting linebacker, and he didn’t look back. In his first two games he recorded 20 combined tackles and a forced fumble, cementing himself as an integral part of the Longhorn’s defense.
Matthews’ dominant play would continue the rest of the season, earning him 2013 Forsyth County Defensive Player of the Year honors by the Forsyth County News.
"I surprised myself," Matthews said. "To be honest I didn’t really know what to expect. Looking back on the season, I’m really pleased with how it went.
"[Winning the award] shows that my hard work pays off and I’m really excited about it."
With 103 tackles — 51 of which were solo — six sacks, three pass break-ups and two forced fumbles, Matthews was the most versatile defender in Forsyth, dominating in multiple facets of the game.
His ability to rush the passer and thrive in both pass and run coverage ultimately separated him from the pack.
"Zach has always been a hard worker, and he always does whatever you ask him to do," said Lambert head coach Sid Maxwell. "He’s a program guy; he gets the most out of the day. That work ethic really made a big difference for him in the end."
Matthews may be the perfect example of a late bloomer. While he was overlooked from freshman to junior year, he was able to develop a linebacker’s body before graduating, which, paired with his intellect, made him a nightmare for opponents.
According to Coach Maxwell, Matthews grew about four inches and put on roughly 20 pounds in his time as a Longhorn. While he grew taller, much of that added weight came in the latter half of his career when he amped up his training regimen.
Matthews came to Lambert as a small, scrawny freshman and left the program as the team’s second strongest player, according to his coach.
"Once Zach’s strength increased, he was flying around and being aggressive, which made him very coachable," Maxwell said. "You can’t just work hard one year; Zach’s play was an acclamation of four years of hard work. And it paid off."
Now, with graduation right around the corner, Matthews is looking ahead to college. He’s spoken with a few schools, and thanks to his good grades, has several attractive options — perhaps in the Ivy League.
Recently he took part in the Forsyth-North Fulton All Star game: a good litmus test for players aspiring to compete at the college ranks. Among the plethora of talented individuals, Matthews stuck out both on defense and special teams, making several key tackles throughout the contest.
If there was any doubt left that Matthews, after just one year as a starter, had what it took to hang with the best, that doubt was erased.
"He’s a Division 1 football player," said Maxwell. "When you look at his performance on the field, he could play a D I-AA.
"The big thing with Zach is he’s still growing into his body. He’s got a lot of room to get better, and I’m confident he’ll do just that."