It’s Time to Soar

It's Time to Soar

New Faces Bring Experience, Energy and Promise to Southeast Athletics

story and photos by Ben Mikesell  /  design by Julianne Wallinger

 

Baseball

11 days.

That is the amount of time Andy Sawyers had from the time he was hired as Southeast’s new head baseball coach in August 2016 to move his family from Manhattan, Kansas, purchase a new home, and place his son into public school. After his family was settled, he had another 11 days to hire three assistant coaches and fill three empty spots on the roster before classes began.

His career as a baseball coach has moved him across the Midwest numerous times, but this move was different. He had three weeks to prepare for his first head coaching position ever. He was stepping into a program that had seen success, and he wanted the transition to go smoothly.

That transition started with the first player-coach meeting.

“That whole month of August things were moving so fast; I remember not feeling prepared for anything,” Sawyers says. “I wanted to make sure they knew I believed in them.”

Sawyers played under four different head coaches when he was in college. He knew how to talk to his players about the transition. He did not want to lose any players to transfers or cuts.

“You guys are our players,” he told the team, reassuring them the coaching staff was committed to the existing players instead of yearning for next years’ recruiting class.

“This is a team that was winning, and we plan on continuing to win. And there’s a place for everybody,” Sawyers says.

When newly appointed Athletic Director Brady Barke brought Sawyers to Cape Girardeau in August, Capaha Field was due for renovations. He never witnessed a game played at the stadium, but he took the job after hearing high praises from friends who played at Capaha against the Redhawks over the years.

“Andy, the past two years I’ve played at USC and Arizona, but the best game day atmosphere was SEMO. Hands down,” a friend of Sawyers told him. “Not the best stadium, not the best playing surface, but the best atmosphere.”

Last spring, Sawyers and his team got to play on the renovated Capaha Field. Now, a new scoreboard towers over the left field fence, but does not obstruct the view of fans who want to watch the game from the hill overlooking the outfield. The grass on the field has been uprooted and replaced with light green AstroTurf. In the infield, the turf turns to a shade of dark brown to mimic the dirt that had been.

“I think the turf enabled us to survive some things better,” Sawyers says. “We had some significant rain early in the year we were able to work through and not miss a day of practice.”

Summer came and went, and expectations did not quite meet reality. Sawyers’ team finished the season 29-26, going 16-14 in conference play, failing to extend its regular season OVC championship streak to four years.

“My first year as head coach we had some pretty significant injuries, so we had to deal with a lot of adversity,” he says, “but through those opportunities you get to grow.”

Redhawks second baseman Trevor Ezell played the first few games of the season before needing surgery on his back, allowing freshman Danny Wright to take his place. Wright stepped in immediately to make a difference, finishing his rookie campaign as the Redhawks’ best hitter. His .376 batting average and five home runs earned him a spot on the OVC All-Freshman Team, and he was named one of Collegiate Baseball Newspaper’s 2017 Freshmen All-Americans.

“Danny Wright kind of came out of nowhere to be a freshman All-American,” Sawyers says. “He had a really fantastic season, and we’re excited about his development.”

Football

Coach Sawyers is not the only new face in recent years. In the past five years, Southeast has seen head coaching changes in football, and men’s and women’s basketball, to name a few. Tom Matukewicz is entering his fourth season at the helm of the football team, which is a long-time aspiration.

“It was a dream of mine to be a head coach,” Matukewicz says, “but there is definitely a learning process.”

Before becoming a head coach, Coach Tuke spent five years at Northern Illinois as an assistant coach working with linebackers. The transition for him was much like Sawyers’ experience.

“As an assistant it’s all about recruiting, schemes and all sorts of things. As a head coach there’s a lot of other skillsets that you need,” Matukewicz says.

Like Sawyers, Matukewicz stresses the need to develop connections with players. One aspect of being a head coach that is enjoyable, he says, is watching the freshmen from his first season progress into their junior and senior seasons.

“You look at them now, and it’s hard to believe they’ve been around for four years,” Matukewicz says. “You think about when they were freshmen, and now seeing the people they’ve grown into, it’s pretty neat.”

To help with that growth, all Redhawks teams must make use of the newly renovated Holcomb Success Center, within walking distance from Houck Field. The renovations, at least for coach Matukewicz, have had an immense impact on recruiting and strength training.

“That really moved the needle for us. If you’re a good football player, you want a nice weight room,” Matukewicz says.

Before renovations, there were only four stations for weight lifting. Now, there are enough weights to accommodate the whole football team at once.

“What it took me to get done in five hours, now I can get done in one,” he says.

The academic benefits of the Success Center are also not to be overlooked, according to Coach Sawyers.

“The fact we had a 3.3 GPA during competition was a significant accomplishment for our men off the field, so that is a very valuable resource and we’re fortunate to have it,” Sawyers says. “You miss an appointment with your academic coach or blow off a tutor, that’s like missing a practice.”

After a slow start to the season, Coach Tuke still hopes this season will be a breakthrough, for fans and players.

“I feel like to get over that hump, we need to create a winning culture,” Matukewicz says. “A team that really connects with each other, too.” Matukewicz’s teams tend to do better at Houck Field than on the road, a trend he associates with the atmosphere of the city. “I feel like we’ve brought college football to Cape,” Matukewicz says, “with the tailgating and the Redhawk Walk. When you drive down Broadway there’s just a lot of energy.”

Basketball

Rick Ray joined the men’s basketball team in April 2015, after spending three seasons as the head coach at Mississippi State. Rekha Patterson, previously the associate head coach at Ball State, was hired as the women’s head coach the same month. In fact, their introductory press conferences were two days apart.

For Patterson, this is her first head coaching experience, so in the beginning she looked to Ray for advice.

“Any time I have a question, I go down the hall and talk to Coach Ray and get his opinion,” she says. “His door has always been open to me, and I really appreciate that.”

Because Ray previously headed the program at MSU, he had the prior knowledge that helped him settle in to his position at Southeast.

“That experience tells you, more than anything, what not to do,” he jokes. Ray quickly learned players see the head coach differently than the assistant coach.

“At Mississippi State I went down the hallway to the assistant coach’s office where the players were laughing, and I walked in and it got silent,” he says. “It hit me right then and there, I’m the head coach now, and I’m not the guy people yuck it up with… I had to figure out a way to make this office not feel like the principal’s office.”

Ray’s strategy to the coaching transition revolved around establishing relationships right away. That includes relationships with returning players, new coaching staff and the community.

“You’re dealing with all of that, and you also have to make sure your family, in that time of transition, is where they need to be,” Ray says. “The most important thing is building relationships and also maintaining relationships with the family.”

Entering their third seasons at Southeast, Ray and Patterson are looking to continue their successes from last season.

After a rocky start in Ray’s first season, the men’s basketball team had the 23rd best turnaround in the nation, according to Ray. The team’s free throw shooting percentage was 336th in the nation in the 2015-16 season, compared to 59th in the following season.

“The small things we concentrated on was just making sure we gave ourselves a chance to win,” Ray says.

Those improvements showed their worth when the Redhawks swept Murray State in conference play for the first time in 74 years.

For Patterson and the women’s team, they look to build upon last season, where they finished tied for 6th place in the OVC.

“Of course you want to win,” she says. “If we play our best and continue to get better at the little things each day, that will turn into positive numbers on the scoreboard.”

Much like Sawyers and Capaha Field, the basketball coaches joined Southeast just after renovations to the Show Me Center were completed. The improvements to the scoreboard and seating have paid off, according to Ray and Patterson.

“The renovated Show Me Center gave us the wow factor we needed in our recruiting,” Ray says. “And also, it’s aesthetically pleasing for the fans.”

The renovations help build a winning culture, which is something Patterson takes pride in as a coach.

“We want to be a great representation of our athletic program and this University. When we put on that uniform, we take pride in it saying Southeast Missouri,” she says.

With the recent head coaching changes and the additions of Brady Barke and President Carlos Vargas, Southeast is in good hands, according to Patterson.

“I think everybody that’s new, they’re excited about being here,” she says. “They’re excited about where the leadership will take us, and helping each of our sports be the best they can possibly be.”

For Barke, these new coaches bring new energy and ideas, which he hopes translates to successes for everybody involved. As athletics director, he’s focused on educating student-athletes first, but knows the importance of delivering winning seasons for everyone, including Redhawk fans.

“To be able to compete and win championships across all our sports, develop our students and prepare them for life after college,” Barke says, “I think that’s something that is attainable for us over the next five years. We have the pieces in place to be what we want to be, now we have to do it.”

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