Marquette-Parkway North

ANDREW JANSEN/JOURNAL Marquette coach Shane Matzen.

Andrew Jansen

Shane Matzen stood surrounded by 300 of his closest friends. The Marquette boys’ basketball coach was inundated by hugs, handshakes, well wishes, thanks-yous and attaboys. Matzen’s back was raw from all the slaps it took. While he worked his way around the crowd, those who couldn’t be there shared their joy and appreciation by blowing up his phone with text messages, emails, Tweets and calls. His pocket was vibrating so much it looked like his hip had a twitch.

This much celebration, elation and joy came nearly an hour after Marquette secured its first trip to the Class 5 state semifinals this weekend in Columbia at Mizzou Arena. The Mustangs (20-10) played their best game of the year in a 66-53 quarterfinal win over CBC at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. “It’s unbelievable,” a stunned Matzen said after the game. “It’s unbelievable.”

In his 20 years of coaching, this is Matzen’s first trip to the biggest stage. A standout player at Eldon High School, Matzen passed on the opportunity to play at three small Missouri colleges to go work as a manager for the Mizzou men’s basketball team while an undergrad. From 1986 until 1990, Matzen soaked up the lessons legendary coach Norm Stewart offered. Matzen knew at an early age he wanted to coach.What better way to learn than to sit at the knee of Mizzou’s ‘Top Tiger?’ “That first month at Mizzou, I had a lot of ego to swallow,” Matzen, 43, says. “That’s hard.” Matzen went from being a big fish in the small pond of Eldon to be a fresh fish filling up water jugs and washing towels. It wasn’t the easiest transition, but he was focused on his coaching career.

After earning a master’s degree from Central Methodist University, he landed his first head coaching job at Elsberry High School in 1992. He spent three years coaching the Indians before becoming an assistant at Marquette. A year later he was named head coach.

He had no idea what he was getting himself into. “Everybody thinks they know what they’re doing when they’re young, that’s part of being young,” Matzen says. “You have to put your finger on the stove to figure out its hot. When I see my alumni, I apologize to them for having to go through that.”

Those lessons have paid dividends. Matzen knows they helped him through this season, which at this moment is magical. But this is the silver lining in what was an ugly January. The Mustangs lost seven of 10 games in one stretch. They were beaten in overtime five times. At a certain point it becomes hard to beat back the doubt and keep your confidence. It’s easy to give in, wave the white flag and say, It’s not our year.

Matzen’s not much of a white flag waiver. “They (the coaches) never stopped believing in us,” senior center and Mizzou recruit Ryan Rosburg says. “We knew we could turn it around.” Matzen says his team didn’t do anything out of the ordinary to get back on the right track. He says the Mustangs just kept working every day to get better. “I think everybody has (that mental toughness), you just have to let it out,” Matzen says.

Winners of nine straight games and dancing into their first final four, you could say the Mustangs have turned their season around. It’s been a long road back to Columbia, but the one-time Mizzou manager will finally get to stalk the sidelines like his mentor. That, Matzen says, is a credit to all the kids who, at one time or another, pulled on the Marquette jersey and sweated, bled and gave their heart to the Mustangs. “I think it’s all about the players,” Matzen says. It’s quite possibly the most important lesson of all.