TORRINGTON >> In Sydney Matzko’s four years at Torrington High School, the Red Raiders went 70-9 in the regular high school softball season.
Matzko, a six-foot left-handed pitcher, was All-State in three of those years, rolling up a school-record 1,157 strikeouts.
This fall she heads to Division I University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill, North Carolina), where she stands a decent chance of starting as a Tar Heel freshman.
Like most routes to Division I athletics, it’s a long trip already.
Matzko played T-ball and Little League softball, but also basketball and swimming.
She joined a softball travel team at 10, but, by fifth grade, it was down to basketball.
“I played for a year. Then I grew,” she grins.
She always pitched in softball. By nine, she had a coach.
In seventh or eighth grade, she switched to the coach she’s been with ever since, Jen Hapanowicz from USA Elite Training.
Matzko has seven pitches: 2-seam fastball; curve, screwball, rise, drop, change and back door curve (starts outside the strike zone for a right-handed batter and curves in to the outside corner).
“(The back door curve) is what I’ve been working on this year,” she says.
Still, the pitches themselves are a little like homework. A coach like Hapanowicz works on mechanics and “works with what you are,” says Matzko. “Things that you don’t see in a game.”
Matzko’s obvious assets are height, arm length and a strong left arm.
She’s lifted weights for the past few years for leg strength and stamina.
That’s not usually an issue during the school year.
In the summer, the competition gets tougher. Matzko has played for the Gold Coast Hurricanes, based in Plantation, Florida, for the past three years.
The U-18 team, consistently ranked in the top 10 in the nation, plays in elite tournaments all over the country.
“I’m playing against the people I’ll be playing against in college,” she says.
The penalty is, “Every pitch has to be perfect.”
As a sophomore, playing within that formula, Matzko pitched the Hurricanes’ U16 team to third place in the nation.
That’s also part of Matzko’s formula for keeping a level head in the midst of local acclaim.
As a freshman, she shared pitching duties with her sister, Chelsea, and still earned NVL All-Copper Division honors. When Chelsea graduated that year (to earn playing honors of her own at Division III Swarthmore College), Sydney took over for good and the honors poured in: three-year Red Raider captain; three years All-NVL; three years All-State; 2014 NVL Pitcher of the Year among a long list.
“No one likes someone who says they’re the best,” she says. “I never thought of myself as bigger than who I am. I kept the big picture in mind.”
Thanks to the Hurricanes, Matzko sees a bigger picture than most high school players; there are some very good players out there.
“I’m a perfectionist,” says Matzko. “I’m not satisfied until it’s perfect, and it will never be perfect.”
She attended a school orientation at North Carolina recently.
“No one knew who I was; it was nice,” she smiles. “We’re all the same kind of kids.”
That’s true, if by that, you mean the cream of the crop.
Matzko is ranked fifth in her Torrington High School class of 247.
Her academic honors make almost as long a list as her athletic one: This year alone, she was Torrington High School’s female CIAC Scholar Athlete and a recipient of the Connecticut Association of Schools Award of Excellence at the top of the list.
“I’m just the average high school kid who has goals I want to reach. I make sacrifices and manage to have fun with my friends,” she says. “I love the game of softball and I live for the adrenaline. I love being normal. I don’t need anyone to tell me who I am. No matter what anyone says, I know myself inside. I have enough of a support group with friends and family. I’ll always have that.”
Looking back at a glorious high school career, much of Matzko’s satisfaction comes with her teammates.
“We came together as a team this year,” she says. “There weren’t any problems off the field.
“It’s not about one game. It’s about the past four years — how much we grew in skills and grew mentally.
Hoping for a championship this year and picked by many to do it, the Red Raiders lost in the Class L Quarterfinals.
“Losing that one game…It’s a lesson,” said Matzko. “You work, you work, you work, but everything has to fall into place to make it perfect. The bigger thing is how you come back — learning to be a bigger person and learning to become who you are.”