Sports Person of the Week
Mathis Embraces the Brotherhood Among the Hornets
Senior Nate Mathis was a key member of a Branford football team that reached the state semifinals and is now having a successful season with the wrestling squad. (Photo by Jenn McCulloch/The Sound)
After being denied the opportunity to fully compete in football and wrestling as a junior, Nate Mathis is capping off his athletic career at Branford on a high note in his senior year. Nate was not only an integral part of the football team’s 9-3 season that featured a state playoff berth, but he’s now the top-ranked wrestler in Class M at 195 pounds for a Hornets’ squad that’s ranked No. 6 in the state.
Even though Nate has been participating in football since 4th grade and wrestling since 7th grade, he’s never viewed himself as a standout athlete. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, he had never played varsity football. However, as a senior, Nate served as a captain and earned big-time recognition for his performance as a two-way lineman.
“This year was a whole new thing for all of us, because none of us had played varsity football and, from the beginning of the football season, I didn’t think I’d be playing that much, but I started doing well,” says Nate. “We ended up having one of the best seasons Branford’s had in 15 or 20 years.”
Branford lost to Amity in its first game of the 2021 season before “something clicked” with the Hornets, who defeated Foran in their next contest. Coming into their third game, Nate and his teammates knew it would be a challenge as Branford hosted a Notre Dame-West Haven team that it had never defeated. Branford held on for a 15-12 victory in a game that came down to the final play.
“That was probably the biggest challenge we’d ever seen, but we realized if we were going to do this, we’d have to do it together,” Nate says. “That win was huge for us, and then we kept the streak going.”
Branford went on to defeat Bethel, Lyman Hall, Brookfield, and Avon before taking an “unexpected blowout” 31-0 loss to Guilford. Nate says that defeat served as a wakeup call for the Hornets, who had their sights set on the playoffs and were motivated to win their next two games to earn a postseason berth.
Facing Avon in the quarterfinals, Branford saw a “really tough game that came down to the end.” Nate came up with a block that allowed Nate Chieffo to score the winning touchdown and send the Hornets to the semifinals to face and undefeated Killingly team.
In another game that came down to the final moments, Killingly ran out the clock to get a 13-12 victory and end Branford’s season. Even with the disappointment of a loss, Nate saw many positives.
“It was a little sad, but we had a phenomenal season and a bunch of guys stepped up—Joe Robinson, Jermaine Smalls, and so many others” says Nate. “Right before the Killingly game, we knew what the outcome could be, but even if we did lose, our big thing was that we already accomplished our goals—to leave the place better than we found it. Coming up from youth and being in that final game was just special, and we played our hearts out until the end.”
That final game finished off Nate’s nine-season run of playing football with Joe Fanelli, Cam Paleski, and Dylan Dupre, who all started together in 4th grade. Nate learned the fundamentals of the game from his youth coaches—Mike Walsh, Mike Paleski, and Steve Dupre—and his coaches continued to have a big impact on him over the years. At Branford High School, Nate worked closely with Padraic Keefe, who was the Hornets’ JV coach before moving to the varsity staff this season. Ron LeCointe also joined the coaching staff this year under Head Coach Joe Limone.
“Coach LeCointe had a big impact and had everyone together before season started, and Coach Keefe was very influential,” Nate says. “I was always afraid of Coach Limone—and I still am—but his pregame speeches get you in the right mindset. It’s been amazing to be able to live within that mindset this year.”
Coach Limone saw Nate bring a solid skillset and quality leadership to the field, resulting in Nate being named a captain a few games into the season. At the end of the season, Nate was named Branford’s Defensive Player of the Year and its Offensive Lineman of the Year, in addition to earning All-SCC Tier 3 honors as an offensive lineman and a Class M All-State accolades at defensive end.
“Nate was invaluable to us during the fall, and his work ethic, competitive attitude, and abilities as a leader were a huge reason for our success,” says Limone. “He also was a huge factor in how our players interacted with each other. We truly had a family-like atmosphere on our team this year, and Nate was right at the heart of that. It was so obvious to everyone how much he cared, something he consistently demonstrated through his actions.”
Nate didn’t expect to get any postseason honors and points out that his awards don’t matter as much as the team’s success. Heading into the season with a “team full of goofballs,” Nate wasn’t expecting the Hornets to do as well as they did.
“Looking at us from a coaching standpoint, I’d think there was zero potential for this kind of season, but we had something none of prior Branford teams had—everyone was friends with everyone and there was a great family feeling,” Nate says. “No one was a superstar, but we all played for each other. Once you’re out there playing for your brothers rather than your teammates, it’s a whole different feeling, and I feel like that’s why we did so well.”
Now, Nate is focused on helping Branford succeed on the wrestling mats. Since beginning in 7th grade and receiving encouragement from Fanelli and Dylan Torre, Nate has continued to improve and remembers several highlights along the way, including watching former teammate Cody McHenry notch his 100th win and Branford finishing third at SCCs in his sophomore year. Nate and the Hornets are hoping to claim the SCC crown and this year and are in the midst of a great season.
“For wrestling, we’re doing phenomenally,” says Nate. “It might be the best season we’ve had so far since I’ve been here.”
While Nate is now seeing success a wrestler, he admits that there were times he thought about quitting. Nate credits his mother Lynn LaCroix for the fact that he’s still competing and feels grateful to his family for their support.
In addition to encouraging him to continue, Nate’s mom has also been heavily involved in both of his sports as president of the Booster Club for wrestling and heading up the Gridiron Club for football. Nate was happy to have his mom back on the sidelines following her breast cancer diagnosis a few years ago.
“I’ve got to give a big shoutout to my mom, because she really taught me about commitment and that, once you commit to team, you can’t leave. She’s always my biggest supporter, and you can hear her over everyone else in the stands,” says Nate. “The last couple years have been rough. She has always been really involved, and having that year she couldn’t do stuff took a toll on her. Coming back this year to be head of gridiron and booster makes her happy.”
“My grandmother [Carol Mathis], father [Michael Mathis], and stepfather [Paul LaCroix], who passed last March, have always been there for me,” Nate continues. “They’ve all had a very huge impact.”
Nate credits former Branford wrestling coaches Jesse Hurlburt and Dan DiBisceglie, along with current coaches Kevin Kapushinski and Zach Cash, for helping him develop his skills. Nate notes that many of the team’s wrestlers worked hard in the offseason by conditioning and going to the gym, something that Nate says was a “big opportunity to get better, and I think we took advantage of it.”
When Nate isn’t wrestling, he enjoys hanging out with his close circle of friends, known as “The Gents,” including Trey Lawson, Anthony Delia, John Frawley, and Dimitri Gionteris. He has also been getting acquainted with lacrosse.
With many of his football teammates on the lacrosse team, Nate decided to add another sport to his repertoire this spring. Nate recently got some gear from former teammate Peyton Tracy and has been working on his lacrosse skills.
“Right after football, with the team bond and relationships still there, we’re trying to carry it over to something else,” says Nate. “I’d like to thank the regime for the best year of football I’ve ever had.”
Jenn McCulloch is the Correspondent for Zip06. Email Jenn at .