By BRETT MARSHALL
When Syracuse boys basketball coach Bill Peeper resigned in May to accept a similar post at Iola, Principal Paul Zuzelski and Athletic Director Marty Lehman were reasonably assured that his replacement was already teaching in USD 494 and also coaching.
So it came as little surprise when the announcement on June 7 at the school board meeting was made that Jeff Mathias would be the next Bulldogs boys coach.
"Jeff is a local kid and he understands the philosophy of what we have here at Syracuse," Zuzelski said. "He's an outstanding teacher and he and Bill (Peeper) worked well together and feel that he's ready for the head coaching position."
Mathias, 30, is a 1998 graduate of Syracuse High School. He was a starting guard on the Bulldog team of 1997-1998, the first year Andy Coleman coached, years helping lead Syracuse boys basketball program to its highest success in history at the time.
Since his return to Syracuse in 2003, Mathias has been an assistant at the middle school for one year, and then became Peeper's assistant in 2004 when Coleman stepped down and Peeper moved up.
"It worked out that because Jeff teaches social studies as did coach Peeper so that we didn't have to interview from the outside for the coaching position," Zuzelski said. "We knew that Jeff's the one we wanted."
From Mathias' perspective, he has already assumed his duties with the summer practice schedule permitted by the Kansas State High School Activities Association.
"I'm pretty excited and I think we've got a good group of boys for this coming season," Mathias said. "I think this is one of those things where I will have the same expectations of the kids that Bill and Andy had and hope to build and continue that success."
Mathias said he will continue to look for the leadership that has been developed throughout the program, from middle school to junior varsity to varsity over the past decade.
"The kids know what to expect, so there will be no surprises," Mathias said. "If it is not broke, there's no reason to fix it. I will do some things differently, but not a great deal. Bill and Andy had great success and my style won't be that different."
Mathias has already been able to work with his upcoming group in June when they went to a camp in Rolla where they played a number of games.
"We'll have a different type of team this coming year in that we won't have the bigger post-type player that we've had in recent years," Mathias said. "I want to build on the tough-nosed defense that has been played and perhaps add some things in that will help with our zone offense. It's an area we can improve on."
Lehman concurred with the fact that Mathias enters the new job with a great deal of familiarity with the program.
"He knows how the district operates, he knows the people, the families and he knows the tradition of our basketball," Lehman said of Mathias. "He's led our junior varsity for six years and he's developed a lot of the kids under Bill who have come up and been successful at the varsity level."
Mathias inherits two full-time starters and one part-time starter from a team that went 18-5 this past season, falling in overtime to Spearville in the finals of the Class 2A sub-state tournament. Under Peeper, the Bulldogs enjoyed unprecedented success as he guided the team to a 113-29 record in his six seasons, a .797 winning percentage.
In 2009, when the Bulldogs went 23-3 and placed third at the 2A state tournament in Manhattan, it was the most successful season in SHS basketball history.
Following his graduation from Syracuse, Mathias attended Hutchinson Community College and then transferred to Kansas State University in Manhattan where he earned a bachelor's degree in education with an emphasis in social studies.
He and his wife, Tori, have a three-month old son, Reid. His father, Rick, is the golf coach at Syracuse High School.