Three Ivy League championships. Two All-American selections. Three qualifications at the NCAA Track and Field Championships. One national title.
And the scariest part? Penn discus thrower Sam Mattis is just getting started.
After securing Penn’s first individual men’s national title since 2003, one would think that Mattis might rest on his laurels — except the senior has done anything but. With his stunning effort of 67.45 meters at the 2016 Philadelphia College Classic, Mattis abruptly asserted himself as a contender for far more than merely a repeat title at the NCAAs.
“This is something that really kind of not only moves up the timetable of this season, but also where I thought I’d be in my career,” Mattis said the week after his record-breaking mark. “Now that I hit that — and I wasn’t even feeling especially great [entering that meet] — I think this season can be pretty big.”
Any time an athlete hits a personal best by more than 16 feet in any event — an absolute rarity, by the way — one might assume that the performance was simply a result of good luck or special preparation on that given day.
But if one looks deeply at Mattis’ history on and off the track, it’s clear that his breakthrough, and any that may come in the following months, are actually several decades in the making.
A family tradition
Countless athletes are first introduced to their eventual passions by a relative looking to pass on knowledge, and Mattis was no exception. In the mid-1980s, Mattis’ father, Marlon, specialized in the hammer throw and weight throw at William and Mary, ranking fourth and second place in school history, respectively, in the two events.
Consequently, the younger Mattis was innately given the pedigree to succeed in track and field, and the New Jersey native never looked back. With his father as a coach, Mattis launched an all-out assault on the record books at East Brunswick High School.
After winning state titles in the boys’ discus throw in 2010 and 2011, Mattis saved his best efforts for last in his final high school season. Not only did he take home his third consecutive state championship, but, in the process, he broke the all-time New Jersey high school discus record set by Ron Dayne — who proceeded to play eight years in the NFL and still holds the NCAA Division I FBS all-time record with 7,125 career rushing yards.
University City beckons
But even before his status as a high school legend came to a close, word on 33rd Street regarding the heralded superstar was already buzzing.
To most track and field fans, the Penn Relays are renowned for the professional talent on the track — rightfully so, considering the household names like Usain Bolt, Allyson Felix and Tyson Gay that have laced up their spikes in recent years.
But the meet also offers high school divisions to give nearby youth talent an opportunity to perform in a high-pressure environment — and it was through this medium that Mattis made a name for himself in Philadelphia far before he ever donned a Penn jersey.
As a sophomore, Mattis took second place behind Jamaica’s Chad Wright. In 2011, Mattis again finished as the top American competitor but couldn’t best Jamaican Traves Smikle, who set a still-standing high school meet record with a gargantuan toss of 69.55 meters (with the 1.6-kilogram high school disc).
By the time the meet rolled around in 2012, the 6-foot-1 superstar had already committed to Penn, and he made sure to put on a show on his future stomping grounds. In his last opportunity at the high school level, Mattis threw 64.60 meters to win by more than 18 feet.
“It’s nice to finally win after being second two times — it’s been a huge goal of mine for a long time,”’ Mattis told NewJersey.com after the meet. “There is nothing bigger than winning at Penn; this is the best moment I’ve ever had throwing.”
But, as Mattis would soon learn, the great moments were only beginning.
Topping the charts
As was the case four years prior, Mattis’ freshman season saw him immediately become his team’s top discus thrower, and Mattis won his first Ivy League championship in the event in 2013 with a mark of 58.34 meters.
Mattis’ progression naturally continued in his sophomore year, as he won his second conference title before qualifying for NCAA Finals for the first time, where he finished in fifth place nationally.
Initially, junior year seemed to bring a return to Earth for the superstar, as he failed to reach his personal record at any point during the regular season.
But as the 2015 postseason came, Mattis would cement his status in Penn track immortality. After winning his third straight conference title, Mattis trailed Tennessee senior Tavis Bailey by two inches entering his sixth and final attempt at the NCAA Finals — and delivered a clutch final toss of 62.48 meters to take home the national championship.
“Obviously that was an awesome accomplishment for me; that’s something that I’ve wanted to do since my freshman year, and to actually get it done was awesome,” Mattis said. “I’m still not sure if it’s hit me yet.”
With a national title already in hand and the general status of being a second-semester senior threatening, one might have expected some complacency to settle in on Mattis’ final season.
But if there ever were any doubts, they were all silenced — to put it politely — by what can simply be referred to as “The Throw.”
Mattis has always been optimistic about his career accomplishments, but not even he could’ve anticipated what was coming at the Philadelphia College Classic on March 19.
And when that first throw of the meet landed at an inconceivable 67.45 meters, the world was put on watch.
In addition to still standing as the best throw worldwide in 2016, Mattis’ throw was the farthest ever by any American collegiate athlete. He became the first American at any age to surpass 67 meters since Jarred Rome did so back in August 2011. If placed in the 2012 Olympic Games, Mattis’ throw would’ve taken fourth in the men’s discus competition.
And, for good measure, the senior has proved that his breakout performance was no fluke in the time since, securing two more attempts surpassing 66 meters in the same meet before throwing 65.12 meters at the Virginia Quad Meet in early April.
“I think [my career] definitely got off to a slow start; freshman year was pretty frustrating toward the end, I had a lot of ups and downs sophomore year, then last year was kind of going along the same trend where I was starting to get a little frustrated before I finished strong at NCAAs,” Mattis said. “This year, I’ve kind of finally gotten back on pace to where I think I can be and even exceeded that, which has been really exciting. It’s a nice mental relief and confidence booster to know that I can throw as far I wanted to when I got recruited to Penn – it’s all finally coming together."
One final try
Considering the looming presence of the 2016 Olympics and the fact that Mattis owns the best discus throw in the world this year, it’s evident that his goals go far beyond anything he can accomplish wearing the Red and Blue.
But if there’s any belief that Mattis’ national team dreams diminish the importance of this weekend’s Penn Relays to the senior in any capacity, Mattis’ recent history at the meet easily lays this falsehood to rest.
In 2013, Mattis finished fourth in the collegiate discus throw at the Penn Relays, finishing a spot behind Smikle for the second time in three years. In 2014, Mattis finished in second place as LSU junior Rodney Brown set a meet record to take the title.
Then, last year, the narrative was awfully similar, as Mattis took fourth place while Brown set a meet record at 65.04 meters for the second consecutive year.
As a result, just about the only thing missing from Mattis’ collegiate resume is a Penn Relays title — and just like he did four years ago, he’s entering his final opportunity with nothing but victory on his mind.
“It’s something that I’ve wanted since my freshman year and just haven’t been able to get done; I won it in my last year of high school, and I thought I’d be able to come into college and replicate that success a lot easier than I have been, but the Penn Relays is just generally one of the best meets in the world,” Mattis said. “It’s looking like — at least I hope — that this is the year, so I’m going to go out there and try to throw as far as I can.”
Even with Brown having graduated, the field opposing Mattis will be quite strong. Jamaica will be sending University of West Indies at Mona senior Fedrick Dacres, who finished in third place at last year’s Penn Relays and currently ranks in fourth place in the world with a best mark of 65.94 meters in 2016. In addition, UWI-Mona will also be sending Smikle, who topped Mattis at the Penn Relays in both 2011 and 2013.
“I think [I can win this year] honestly. ... It has been tough, in past years — some of the top guys from Jamaica have thrown really far, and obviously [Dacres] is in great shape,” Mattis said. “It’s never easy, and everybody really steps up.”
But as Mattis seeks his first collegiate title at his seventh consecutive Penn Relays, nothing short of perfection will satisfy him as he enters the homestretch of what’s already arguably been his most accomplished season in a Penn uniform.
“I’m feeling a lot better than I usually do, and the goal is to break the Penn Relays record for disc,” Mattis said. “And I definitely won’t be happy if I don’t win, so I’m going to want to step up and do the best that I can.”
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