Face of the Franchise

Ryan Thomas

Give Matt Muolo the big stage, and he’ll shine.

Back on May 26, 2007, Matt was standing in his circle, shot in hand, waiting to throw. The captain of the Stoneham High School Outdoor Track and Field team had the meet’s outcome and the weight of the Division III Outdoor Track and Field Championship in the palm of his right hand. It was the last throw of the meet, the last throw of his high school career.

Cory Thalheimer, a junior from Hopkington High School, was holding the lead with a heave of 15.85 meters. Matt’s previous throws hadn’t topped the mark set by Thalheimer, but his last one – the most important throw of his career, and of his life – went 16.28 meters.

Matt had walked off with the win.

“So that was pretty cool,” the UMass Boston freshman and budding college track and field star casually said about the accomplishment.

The thing about Matt is that he is cool under pressure. He thrives off of it, actually. That win back in Stoneham? It was pretty cool, but now that college has arrived and there is a new challenge to face, that win in high school is old news.

This spring, Matt’s been busy winning Little East Conference Rookie of the Week honors (twice), throwing his way into first place at UMass Dartmouth’s 4th Annual “Corsair” Classic and at the Rhode Island College Invitational, and teaching his teammates all the little things that he learned from his Stoneham High School throwing coach, Al Kopek.

“For a while, I didn’t even like him, to be honest,” says Kopek, now in his eighth year as a throwing coach at Stoneham High School. “But he’s worked hard and he always did whatever he had to do, despite whatever his personal issues were.”

Muolo and Kopek are good friends now. So much so that Matt finds time in his hectic college schedule to make the trip back to Stoneham once or twice a week to practice with Kopek, to work on the little things that make him a great thrower. And it would be one thing if Matt absorbed all of this like a selfish sponge and kept it to himself, but he doesn’t. Matt takes these nuggets of throwing knowledge back to his two throwing partners, David York and Brandon Yarde, and he shares the insights with them.

Pershing Reid, one of Muolo’s coaches this season at UMass Boston, sees the positive effect that Matt has had on York and Yarde. “[Matt is] very important because we have a couple of throwers that are inexperienced,” he says. “The new guy [Brandon] has learned a lot from Matt and Dave, but mainly from Matt.

“He learned a lot from Matt, a lot of things about power and the spin, how to throw from the hip.”

The on-field success Matt has had in his freshman year alone warrants acknowledgement, but his personal successes are only a small part of what this young track and field star is about. Sarah Shapiro, the outdoor track and field team’s head coach has seen, since the first day Matt stepped onto the field, a certain level of leadership and teaching ability that makes him even more special to the program. “We coach him,” Shapiro says, “but he’s our leader, he coaches the other throwers.”

Once again, this goes back to Muolo’s high school days, when he was captain of the track and field team, but also the captain of the hockey team. “It probably helped that I was a captain in high school,” Matt says, trying to explain why he has become a leader on the team, even though he’s only a freshman.

It’s hasn’t all been easy, Matt explains, taking on a large leadership role so early in his college career – but put him down for extra helpings of it. “It’s pretty intense,” he says, referring to the amount of work he’s had to put in, “but I like it because I like having tons of pressure on me. I like people relying on me.

“It makes me have to work harder.”

“At first, it was like, ‘alright, I’m gonna have to teach every day, I’m not gonna have time to throw,’ but it [teaching] helps me with my form also. Telling these kids how to do it, showing them how to do it, I’m working on my form while doing that.”

Kopek says he’s a natural leader. “He was one of those kids that people followed.

“He’s one of those exceptions to the rule. He always did his own thing, and then I was fortunate to get my hands on him because he’s one of those naturally gifted athletes.”

At 5′ 11″ and 215 pounds, it seems as though Matt was built for the sole purpose of heaving 16-pound balls of iron more than 50 feet in the air, but he has improved greatly since Kopek taught him the right mechanics, and he grew up a bit. “He was definitely using his arm more, trying to be a tough guy,” says Kopek. “[But] once he realized he needed his legs, everything kind of pieced itself together.”

Before his mechanics were fine tuned, however, Matt’s shoulder had already taken a beating. Between the hockey team, heaving the shot put and throwing the javelin, Matt ended up tearing his labrum, the cuff of cartilage that makes the shoulder socket more stable.

The main culprit of the injury was the javelin, the track and field event most commonly affiliated with labrum and other shoulder injuries. The javelin was Matt’s favorite event, and the one he was most successful at as well. As much as he wanted to continue, Kopek encouraged him to take up the discus, which is less stressful on the shoulder, and Matt agreed.

“He tried it [the javelin] and it hurt, but we just had to tell him to stop doing it and worry about what he was good at,” Kopek remembers. “It was something he loved to do, but he had to find another alternative, and it worked out great anyway.”

Matt led his high school to the 2007 Division III Championship by winning both the shot put and the discus, accounting for 20 of Stoneham High School’s 62 points. Matt hasn’t picked up a javelin since then. He admits that it crosses his mind sometimes, but knows that throwing motion could mean long-term damage.

“It’ll hurt sometimes if I play catch with my brother with a baseball, or if I play Wiffle Ball or something,” Matt says. “But I don’t want to risk it [surgery] right now because everything’s going so well.” Give it some ice and a day’s rest, he says, and it’s back to normal.

Shapiro thinks that Matt’s labrum injury affects him a little bit, but says, “I think it’s a good thing that that’s in the back of his head because he tries even harder because of that. He makes sure it doesn’t get in the way of his progress.”

Whether Matt is one-hundred percent healthy or not isn’t certain, but one thing is: He has helped put the track and field team back on the map at UMass Boston. After historic success in the 1980s, the program nosedived in the 1990s and took a six-year sabbatical that started in 2001 and ended in the spring of 2007 when the revamped club team was once again promoted to a varsity sport.

In the team’s second season back, Shapiro and Reid are sending seven athletes to New England’s Division III Regionals, and Matt is their poster boy for the future. “I believe that someday Matt may be in [the Division III] Nationals,” Shapiro says. “I think he can be one of our firsts, considering that he has what it takes to go to [the Division III] Nationals.”

Shapiro says that the athletic department can’t believe how far the program has progressed in such a short time span, but Vice Chancellor of Athletics Charlie Titus knows that Matt’s emergence has a lot to do with it. “When you have an athlete like Matt, one thing is it’s motivating for all the other athletes on the team.

“I think that his work ethic, his leadership and the success of the coaching, that all sort of becomes contagious.”

And even though Titus is happy with the turnaround, he still has to worry about funding, which continues to be stretched thin across the university. It’s scary, but “it’s a good scary, and it’s a challenge, in terms of making sure we can fund it and keep a lot of funding.

“I’m optimistic,” he says.

Funding aside, Muolo wants to bring this program back to prominence, and he plans to do it as a team. “With continued success and everything, I think we could flourish and be one of the top teams in our [conference].”

Matt Muolo has three years of eligibility left after this season, and the program will be resting on top of him. Shapiro plans on naming him captain of the team and says she has another surprise for him too.

The pressure’s high, the weight of UMass Boston track and field is on his shoulders.

Just the way he likes it.