North Xtra: Senior leads Fox Chapel in postseason

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Last year the Duke University women's basketball team won the Atlantic Coast Conference championship and made it to the Elite Eight in the NCAA tournament.

Probably the majority of sports fans in Western Pennsylvania didn't know that ... or care to know.

But there is at least one district high school player who has been following the Blue Devils as if they were family -- mostly because next year she will become part of that family.

Fox Chapel's Erin Mathias' long wait to become a Duke Blue Devil is finally approaching, but not before she has some unfinished business to take care of.

The Foxes (19-5) lost to Penn-Trafford, 44-43, Tuesday in a WPIAL semifinal. But the narrow defeat doesn't end Fox Chapel's season.

They've qualified for the PIAA tournament as the WPIAL's No. 3 or 4 team, depending on the outcome of Saturday's title game between Penn-Trafford and Hempfield Area.

Mathias made it one of her first priorities as a high school athlete to make a verbal commitment to the Blue Devils, a perennial power in women's college basketball, after her freshman season.

"It was pretty crazy to commit as a freshman," Mathias said. "I wasn't really thinking about getting that opportunity as a freshman. I watch all the games on TV and it was definitely a dream school. I had to take advantage of it."

No ordinary high school athlete has the opportunity to become a Duke Blue Devil, but Mathias' high school coach, Meghan Meabon, knew she had what it took --including at 6 feet 3 some nice size -- to go anywhere she wanted.

Meabon is in her fifth season as the Foxes head coach but also spent time as the head coach at General McLane and Conneaut Lake High School near Edinboro and Meadville. She also spent time as an assistant at Edinboro University but continues to praise Mathias as a one-of-a-kind athlete.

"There have been girls whom I [coached] who had potential but she brings a unique level to the game," Meabon said. "She has been the most talented that I have coached. I have had tall players before but not 6-foot-3 players who can come out and play the perimeter and handle the ball well."

Mathias knew to be successful at the next level she would have to improve her outside game.

"I am one of the tallest girls in high school but at college most of the girls on my team are the same height," Mathias said. "I had to work on my outside game and head fake and drive to the hoop more."

Mathias' outside game along with consistent ability to grow and get stronger since her freshman year has made her one of the top players in the WPIAL.

"She works very, very hard in the offseason in her post game and shooting game and in the weight room," Meabon said. "The biggest thing in the four years is to see how she matured mentally and physically on the court. She is probably her worst enemy. That took her out of some games early in her high school career. She is a complete player."

Her biggest leap came at one of the worst times for Mathias. In her sophomore year, Mathias was dealing with a nagging knee injury for years but finally couldn't put off having it repaired any longer. She elected to have surgery, forcing her to miss the entire season.

"I had patellar tendinitis," Mathias said. "I had it since eighth grade and it progressed so they recommended a small arthroscopic surgery. It was really hard especially since I sat out a while before that to try to heal it own its own.

"It got so bad again before the season started but I grew a lot from sitting out my sophomore year and watching the game."

Mathias returned to the court in the summer after her sophomore year for the PA Bruins, the same AAU program she has been playing for since she was in sixth grade.

"My first couple of tournaments were pretty bad. It took me a couple of months to get back into the swing of things," Mathias said. "By the time the start of junior year came I was 100 percent."

Mathias officially signed with Duke this past November and hasn't looked back since.

"It was a relief," Mathias said. "[The Duke coaches and administration] were very supportive of me through my injury and to finally sign with them felt good."

Mathias has basically been a walking double-double machine (points scored and rebounds) this season as she led the Foxes to the Section 2-AAAA championship, including her most memorable game of the season against Pine-Richland in the first round of the WPIAL playoffs where she scored 23 points, recorded 16 rebounds and blocked 8 shots.

That could be just a little sample of what may come next season in Durham, N.C.

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