POLO — The world of sports is a collection of statistics, records, and feats. In the professional ranks, you’ll see players quite often ask for the first home run baseball, or the pigskin once they cross the goal line. Head coaches bear the brunt of criticism much more than their successes. It is the opinion of many media types, parents, and armchair assistants, that coaches are only as good as their personnel.
Actually, most coaches, at all levels of competition, are the unsung heroes. They arrive early to practice and stay long after the final horn has sounded on game day, often driving the team bus while usually not looking for any special recognition while just doing their job.
Polo Head Varsity Boys' Basketball Coach Matt Messer has been doing just that for 18 years and recently set a milestone, recording his 300th career win. As we chatted, not once did Messer say “me” or “I”, again, a typical humble trait in a lot of individuals that lead and support others. Most of the time, a coach's value and job security are measured by wins and losses. While Messer feels that there is much more to it, he has coached consecutive 20-win seasons dating back from 2012-2019, more than any other coach in the NUIC, NIC-10, or BNC. Messer shared that the recent recognition is appreciated, but there have been a lot of factors to his success. “Honestly, the people at Polo have been very good to me and let me coach with no problems,” Messer said. “My wife gets a shout out for being very supportive and understanding as the wife of a coach. I think that longevity comes from consistency in our programs both at the JV and varsity levels. My right-hand man through the years is Joe Merdian. We have won 300 games together, not just me. I‘ve had and have a great coaching staff of volunteers and parents always willing to be involved, which I feel lucky to possess. I also came in at the right time being fortunate to have such an influx of talented basketball players.”
Merdian, the JV head coach and varsity assistant, has been by Messer’s side for every ballgame and isn’t surprised by his success.
“The time that we put in in the offseason in the summer league and preseason meetings bouncing ideas around which will best suit our team is what stands out about Matt, and it’s been really good being a part of it,” Merdian said. “One of the keys is that we haven’t done the same thing once in 18 years which keeps the opposing teams guessing and makes it fun for us.”
Every season brings its own set of changes and challenges as students graduate and underclassmen step up. Messer said that one key ingredient to this undertaking is to try and recognize what you’ve been given.
“My approach has been to adapt based on talent and size," Messer said. “In a perfect world, I’d like us to play fast and shoot a lot of high-percentage three-point shots, but we can’t always do that. One year we had a 6’8 kid and ran our offense through the post. It’s those kinds of variables that help make decisions.”
Messer admitted that his coaching style has changed over the years and tries not to be a yeller, but more laid back and even keeled.
“I’ve mellowed with age,” Messer said. “In my playing and early coaching days, most coaches were authoritarian types that didn’t want much input. Kids today don’t respond to that approach. They don’t want to be told what they did wrong, but explained why. One thing that I won’t tolerate and will raise my voice is if I see a lack of hustle.”
Messer’s methods aren’t lost on Polo Athletic Director Ted Alston, who’s been teaching and coaching during his tenure.
“One of the biggest measures of his success is that he’s a really good person first and foremost and his players always respond and compete,” Alston said. “Sometimes, it’s a hard thing to get the kids to constantly hustle on the court every game, but he gets that. He doesn’t get bogged down with a system that doesn’t match the talent. His in-game adjustments are just as noticeable and impressive.”
Messer credits his staff who he admitted that he tends to lean on.
This season, the Marcos find themselves currently in third place with a 5-2 record in the Northwest Upstate Illini Conference South, trailing 6-0 Eastland and 5-1 Fulton. They feature senior captain guard-forward Brock Soltow, averaging an impressive 19 points a game. Soltow is complimented by teammates, junior guard Gus Mumford, contributing 11.6 a game, senior guard Carter Meridian at 7.9 PPG who Messer refers to as our “all-around guy.” Senior forward Nolan Hahn pulling down close to five rebounds a game, and junior forward Noah Dewey rounding out the top five, with Billy Lowry, and Gage Zeigler in the mix coming off the bench. “We are more athletic this year than we have been in a long time,” Messer said. “We have been trying to play a really aggressive defense whether it’s full or half-court pressure. Offensively, we can get out and run and shoot the ball well. It’s a nice mix as a result of our athleticism.”
Like most teams, the Marcos set their pre-season goals of winning both the conference and regional titles which Messer feels is realistic and attainable.
“We have a sense of maturity and experience with Brock and Carter members of the varsity for three years,” Messer said. “Everything that we want is in front of us. We need to keep building and are playing good basketball at the right time of the season.”