When Leonard Mathews came on the local tennis scene, he was an instant success. His physical skills shot him to the No. 1 singles position during his freshman year, and he has been there ever since.
Now, as a junior at Merrillville, Mathews' mental and emotional skill set is catching up to his physical game, and both he and the Pirates are reaping the benefits.
"Leonard has matured a lot as a player this season," Merrillville coach James Simon said. "Now he understands the importance of building a strategy for how to approach a match, depending upon the opponent. That was missing last season."
Last season, as a sophomore, Leonard made it to the final four in the state individual tournament. He defeated Calumet's Jeff Stooksbury and East Noble's Derek Romer at LaPorte to advance to Indianapolis. At state in Indianapolis, he took out Penn's Andy Hansen before falling to eventual state runner-up Ray Leonard of Bloomington North.
Mathews was recognized for his strong run by being named to the all-district first team and the all-state second team.
This year, with a much improved mental and emotional game, he is poised to succeed again.
"I've worked very hard with coach on different aspects of my game," Mathews said. "I understand you can't use the same style of play with every opponent and that sometimes you have to come into a match with a different plan. It's been a challenge to add some new stuff to my game, but I always like a new challenge."
Mathews (12-2 on the season so far) has added a new nuance -- adjusting during the match.
"One of the things I'm trying to get Leonard to do is focus on what is working that day and drop something that isn't working," Simon said. "Not every type of shot is clicking on a certain day, so I want him to use the ones working that day more often and not force it."
While Mathews works hard to make adjustments, he also dedicates extra time to refining his physical game.
"I have improved my serve a lot this year," Mathews said. "My serve was pretty inconsistent my first two years. But I am hitting it the way I want with better speed, better spin and much more consistency this year. That has helped to improve my game a lot."
With a solid strategy, improved serve and more confidence than before, Mathews is thinking big in the postseason.
"I was pretty amped up to go to Indy last year," Mathews said. "This year, I believe I can do better. I can't wait for another shot at it."