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Thoughts on a lost season: Westville hockey star Ethan Matkovich
8 May 2020 – The Covid-19 lockdown has been a shocking blow from the viewpoint of winter sports in schools, especially for learners in matric, set for one last hurrah, as the stars of their various teams, writes KZN10.com’s Brad Morgan. For Westville Boys’ High hockey captain, Ethan Matkovich, it’s meant missing out on an opportunity to follow up on a brilliant 2019 season, both individually and from the standpoint of the side.
Last year, Westville went undefeated, beating some of the top teams in the country, including Jeppe, whom many had considered to be number one before they met the KZN side, giving Westville a legitimate claim to the top spot.
Although he was in grade 11 at the time, Ethan was one of the key players in the Westville line-up, which was reflected in his selection for the KZN Coastal team and then the SA under-18 hockey squad.
Just before the lockdown began, that achievement was recognised when Ethan received his merit tie [a level above an honours’ award, given to boys who receive national honours] from Westville, along with Luke James (SA gymnastics) and Troy Botha (SA softball).
Westville vs Kearsney match report 2019
Westville vs Hilton match report 2019
There was uncertainty when schools closed early as to what it would mean for the winter sports’ season. Now, sadly, it has become clear: all schools’ hockey and rugby matches and inter-provincial tournaments have been cancelled.
“It is obviously something no one expected, or even thought this could ever happen. It is really tough,” Ethan said on Thursday.
“I think of all the build-up that we did, and all the training from last year that we haven’t been able to use. It’s a big shock for everybody. I was certainly expecting a lot of big things this year. Unfortunately it didn’t pan out and we’ve just got to try and find a way forward.”
Cleaning things up at the back, Westville hockey captain and centre half, Ethan Matkovich.
“It has been quite frustrating,” Director of Hockey, Cameron Mackay, said in a phone call. “I think it is more frustrating for the boys, especially for the matric boys who have gone through five years, always waiting for their matric year.
“Hopefully we can do something for the boys before the end of the year. It has been frustrating to be unable to do anything. I like to get onto the turf as much as possible, so it’s been tough.”
“There’s a couple of guys who have been in the system for a number of years. Keegan McCallum was injured last year, so he didn’t get to IPT, so this was his year to make up for that, but it’s tough because the guys have worked hard to get fit and get to where they are.”
There were many fans of hockey who were looking forward to seeing Westville in action this season, and they were not just supporters of the school. After their outstanding exploits of 2019, many wanted to see what kind of follow-up Westville would produce.
Mackay explained the make-up of the 2020 team: “We lost quite a few matrics from last year, but we still had Ethan. Our back four and goalkeeper were all gone, except for Ethan, then we kept two of our three starting midfielders, and we still had half of the forwards. We lost quite a few guys, but the grade tens coming through are quite decent as well. We had a good side for this year.”
It is worth noting the strength in midfield and up front because if there is one shortcoming in South African hockey, generally speaking, it is finishing. Then, having a general at the back, controlling matters, like Ethan Matkovich, goes a long way to providing a reliable and effective defensive unit.
“We have always had a philosophy at Westville of managing our back four the best we possibly can,” Mackay said, “and creating that platform first and then going forward from there. It’s been a good system in the last few years.
Always calm and composed, and a leader, Ethan Matkovich.
“A guy like Ethan is a blessing. He is just so controlled at the back. He controls the tempo of the game and he has a really good head on his shoulders.
“He keeps it simple and does the simple stuff better than anyone else, which is quite a strange thing to see in schoolboy hockey. You look for that at under-21 level, sometimes not even then. He has the maturity of a man at the back, which is cool.”
For Ethan, it is about leadership. He’s been a captain throughout his school career, in every team he has played in, excepting when he made teams as a player a year younger than the other boys.
Captaincy has always been a positive force in his sporting achievements, he said: I think it helps my game. It gives me more responsibility, which means I can’t lower my standards. I enjoy it.”
Like Westville’s approach to hockey, his leadership style is not flashy, it’s more of a blue-collar thing, getting down to work and setting the example. The word that keeps coming up is “simple”.
“We just have to keep things simple. The simple things are most often the things that win you games. Always work hard. You can’t beat hard work.
“We know, as Westville, we don’t have those flashy players and the ‘best players’, but we, as a team, will work harder than anyone else. We’re happy to play our way and do the hard work. If we win by one or we win by 10, we’re still winning the game.”
The Westville 1st XI of 2019 celebrate an undefeated season after a 3-1 victory over Kearsney College. Ethan Matkovich is on the left. (Photo: Highway Mail, https://highwaymail.co.za/)
That outlook is reflected in coach Cameron Mackay’s overall programme for Westville hockey. “We’ve set quite a good platform for ourselves where the kids are learning the same thing from grade eight,” he said.
“We might not always get the best kids [talent] in the province. We get a good type of kid, hard workers. We get good hockey players, too. But then you also have good cricketers who are good at hockey, and good soccer players who are good at hockey.”
“We have good depth, and we end up with kids who maybe didn’t come to Westville as hockey players, but they end up loving the sport.
“We set out a programme a few years ago – Sharmin Naidoo and I – where we put together a full programme that we wanted the boys to learn from under-14 to under-18, so all of our coaches spoke the same language. We kept it as simple as possible and we tried to make the philosophy that we will just do the basics better than anyone else, as opposed to trying to be really flamboyant and doing different things while allowing our coaches to do their own thing. I think that has been our biggest strength.”
In action in the famous black and white of the KwaZulu-Natal Coastal team.
It’s a no-frills approach, but it works very well. Ethan said: “Hard work is key. We hear from other players, at provincial tournaments, or at provincial training, they say they are a little intimidated to play us. Not because of the fancy stuff we do, but because we are always pressing and coming at them hard. I think that is shown in all aspects of the school. In academics, we generally have people in the top 10 percent of the province. In all sports, we generally have a group of boys performing at the top provincial level.”
As far as hockey is concerned, since Ethan has been at Westville Boys’ High (having attended Westville Pre-Primary, Westville Junior Primary, and Westville Senior Primary) the school has always been a top 10 team in South Africa. While he might not have the opportunity to continue that superb record this season with the school, there is at least some light on the hockey horizon for him.
Ethan is a member of the national under-18 squad and had been set to play for the side at the under-21 Inter-Provincial Tournament (IPT) this year. That opportunity has passed, but there is still a big event set for next year.
“We received an email the other day [from the South African Hockey Association], saying that for the under-18 squad they’re going to try and create contact time between the squad and the staff of those groups. They’ll try and do some video calls and mental training, speaking about a way forward.
“The Junior World Cup happens at the end of next year and hopefully a few of us will be able to go on that tour. They’re trying to be proactive, to connect with us, and making sure we’re okay. I assume they’re going to be doing this soon and showing us a way forward.”
The Westville hockey team, meanwhile, has not been idle. “We are trying to stay positive as a group,” Ethan said. “We are doing some fitness challenges and posting them on our WhatsApp group. Obviously everyone is hurting from this.
“We do simple stuff, like seeing how many push-ups you can do in a certain amount of time, a few silly things like that to keep us going.”
Besides being an outstanding hockey player, Ethan is also a top cricketer and has received his provincial colours in the sport. He is, naturally, captain of Westville, a player with a good head on his shoulders, and a composed batsman who plays with enviable fluency.
Ethan Matkovich on his way to an unbeaten fifty, which saw Westville to a hard-fought victory over DHS in the first term. (Photo: Brad Morgan)
The first term, he admitted, was an up and down time for the 1st XI, a very talented side on paper which, too often, found different players firing at different times and seldom together. In some games the bowling was on song, in others it was the batting, but, as happens in cricket, form can be a fleeting thing and the margins between winning and losing can be extremely fine.
Ethan was at his unruffled best in a win over DHS, leading his team from 50 for 5, chasing 146 to win, to victory without the loss of another wicket on a pitch that had some turn and an outfield that was very heavy, a fact that was reflected in the DHS innings which produced only two fours.
“We had a really good side on paper, but we battled to win the key moments in games,” Ethan said. But, with only four matric boys in the line-up, Westville was always a competitive team, which suggests good things are on the horizon, with lessons learnt from a challenging season set to become valuable assets. And the example set by the skipper is one of the biggest among them.
One thing that one can be pretty sure about, Ethan Matkovich will continue to lead, in good times, in bad times, when challenges are fun, when challenges are daunting, even in this unprecedented time. With that approach, whether the hockey season or any semblance of one happens this year, it is surely not the last we will hear about his sporting exploits.