WARRENSBURG — Two hours before Warrensburg-Latham's Week 3 home game against Sullivan-Okaw Valley, Braden Mathews, Jackson Cook and Adam Maxwell sat in head coach Aaron Fricke's office with the playbook in front of them.
Fricke told them to go through it and ask any questions they had. Mathews had just learned that he'd be making his first start at quarterback for the Cardinals in place of Nate Hayes, who is no longer with the team.
All the while, Fricke kept scanning Mathews' face, looking for any indication that his junior quarterback, considered a touch undersized at 5-foot-8, was nervous. After all, Fricke felt those nerves before making his first career start as a junior at Lincoln High School against Mount Zion. Surely Mathews had to feel those same emotions.
The thing was, Fricke couldn't sense a hint of trepidation from Mathews.
"Not one time did I see worry in his eyes," Fricke said. "It's not supposed to happen like that."
By the end of the night, Mathews had led the Cardinals to a win, cemented himself as the team's quarterback and he hasn't looked back. The Cardinals (3-3) are 2-2 with him as their starter, and he's thrown for 644 yards, eight touchdowns and four interceptions. That production, combined with his 426 rushing yards and four scores on the ground, has Fricke all-in on his quarterback. On Friday, Mathews will make his fifth start at home at 7 p.m. against Tuscola.
"When he got out there, I expected to see (the nerves) in his play: A couple picks, maybe a fumble," Fricke said. "But there wasn’t any of that. He was the dude from then on. He was ready to run the show."
Mathews' poker face was enough to dupe Fricke. Four games later, and he's not afraid to let out the truth that he wasn't as calm as his head coach thought. As soon as Mathews was able to call his father, he did. The call was partly to share the news, but partly to help get calmed down.
“I was a little nervous, yeah," Mathews said. "It was a spur of the moment thing. It happened really fast. I was really nervous, actually."
There's always been a gravitas about Mathews that helped ease the move into the starter's spot. He goes to every junior varsity football game — home and away — to help younger teammates who will eventually help him on Friday nights. If a play is botched in a game, it's a collective effort to right the ship, with Mathews on board.
“It’s all of those intangibles that makes all the kids around him respect him even more," Fricke said. "They’ll follow him into battle any day."
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At first, Mathews relied on his legs as he got a feel for the passing game, but since then he's been attacking through the air. Each day in practice consists of team drills followed by a deeper focus on his individual progression. After an errant throw on Friday nights, he heads right to the sidelines to see exactly what went wrong. There's a commitment to improvement.
“We’ve done a lot of little stuff in practice every single day working on footwork and everything just trying to help me," Mathews said.
The quarterback position itself isn't new to Mathews. He played on the junior varsity team the last two seasons, but was a cornerback in the first two games this year. Last spring, Mathews ran track for Fricke, but winning state wasn't his primary objective during the season. It was a chance to talk football when they could and watch plays on their phones to and from track meets in an effort to get better acclimated to the system.
It just so happened that there was always somebody entrenched in the starter's spot ahead of Mathews. Until now.
"He’s always been in the shadow of every quarterback, but when he finally got his chance he never looked back," Cook said. "He went for it and look where we’re at now."
Mathews didn't miss any summer workouts and Fricke opened the door as far as he could for Mathews to take the starting spot in Week 1, but Hayes kept hold of it and Mathews went to the defensive side of the ball while also taking some reps as a wide receiver.
“I understood how it was," Mathews said. "I knew I was going to get a chance sometime and it just came faster than I thought it was going to.”
In fact, if someone would have told Fricke in the summer that by Week 3 Mathews would be his starter, there would have been some worry in Fricke's mind. Hayes was a returning starter from last season and Cook had played well enough over the summer to earn the backup job — not Mathews.
But Mathews has answered the call.
“Honestly, now that it’s happened, I didn’t realize what we were missing with Braden," Fricke said. "I think there’s so much more we can do."