By Tris Wykes

Copyright Octopus Athletics 2021

LEBANON – The new guy guiding the Lebanon High girls basketball team generally looked poised Wednesday when the Raiders hosted Merrimack Valley. Come halftime of the NHIAA Division II contest, however, K.J. Matte was left glancing around uncertainly.

“Where do we go now?” the 24-year old asked his players.

Lebanon’s Sarah Belk, right, passes against Merrimack Valley’s Macy Gordon. Copyright Octopus Athletics. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to ctwykes@aol.com.

The answer was the weight room adjacent to the court, but how would Matte know that? He was just handed the interim head coaching job Tuesday afternoon and posted his initial victory when the Raiders pulled a 51-41 upset behind guard Catherine Cole’s 22 points.

Lebanon’s first-year bench boss, Chris Boucher, is out with Covid-19 for the foreseeable future. His only assistant, first-year paraeducator Nick Colao, directs the JV program but never formally played the sport.

Principal Ian Smith, a former Raiders standout with years of lower-level basketball coaching experience, climbed on the team bus Monday afternoon and announced he was the varsity’s coach for the evening. Boucher had been ruled out only hours before. Lebanon was routed at Laconia, 42-25, and Matte took over the next day.

K.J. Matte was once a standout Raiders guard for his father, longtime boys coach Kieth Matte. The son was a reserve at Maine’s Bowdoin College for three years before guiding Lebanon’s JV boys team last winter. 

Lebanon interim coach K.J. Matte shouts instructions to his team. Note the basketball tie. Copyright Octopus Athletics. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to ctwykes@aol.com.

K.J. Matte graduated from Bowdoin last spring. He intended to enroll at Norwich (Vt.) University and participated in informal workouts with the Cadets this fall, but didn’t enjoy the academic program in which he was enrolled. He returned home and became a paraeducator at Lebanon, where Kieth Matte is the vice principal.

All of which is to say that the younger Matte, who hopes to become a teacher, couldn’t have possibly predicted his rise to Wednesday’s role. 

“They needed me to step up and I need to take my time, learn about the players and their abilities and learn the offense,” K.J. Matte said. “We put in some new offensive plays to allow the girls to play more freely and be able to drive into the paint, make the defense collapse and kick it out for open shots.”

Merrimack Valley defeated Sanborn and Kingswood by a combined 80 points during its first two games but trailed, 13-7, after a quarter Wednesday, 28-20 at halftime and 33-30 after the third stanza. The Pride played with only three substitutes but fatigue didn’t seem to be a significant factor. 

Lebanon guard Molly Smith changes directions against Merrimack Valley’s Macy Gordon. Copyright Octopus Athletics. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to ctwykes@aol.com.

The visitors didn’t shoot well from the start, turned the ball over regularly and generally appeared out of sorts despite the obvious abilities of senior guard Macy Gordon and polished post player and senior Mackenzie McDonald. The latter dropped in 20 points.

“We’ve worked defensively on being in the right position on the help side and being in your gap and not overcommitting,” said Matte, who’s also coached AAU summer games during the last couple of years. “Our girls played as a team and their effort and unselfishness won us the game.”

Matte said he’s enjoyed his new competitors’ effort and attention, echoing a thought often heard when coaches move from boys to girls teams. Aggression may come more easily to boys, and they might possess physical advantages, but girls often use intelligence, attention to detail and cohesiveness to succeed.

“They seem coachable and receptive and they listen to the things I ask of them and they execute them,” Matte said. “It can be better though.”

Lebanon’s Clara Smyrski awaits a free throw attempt. Copyright Octopus Athletics. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to ctwykes@aol.com.

Where the Raiders and their current coach go in the future should be interesting. Lebanon has four experienced seniors in Cole, guard Molly Smith, center Ella Longacre and forward Clara Smyrski. Longacre had 11 points Wednesday and junior forward Maddie Jewell chipped in 6.

K.J. Matte, who began studying Arabic in college and has continued through an online program, has traveled to Jordan and said he may attempt to use his final season of NCAA eligibility starting next fall. He also dreams of playing basketball in the Middle East or Africa.

“Clearly, I’m not going to the NBA,” Matte said. “The last few days have been really fun and I’m looking forward to relaxing a bit tonight, but we’ve got a huge game on Friday.”

Notes: K.J. Matte’s earlobes are pierced but he didn’t wear any jewelry there Wednesday. He said that might change Friday… The Lebanon school district has averaged roughly a Covid case per day among students and teachers lately, including four cases announced Wednesday… Merrimack Valley, founded in 1967, has as its mascot a creature named Victor E. Lion and counts among its graduates former Major League Baseball pitcher Bob Tewksbury.