Too Good To Be Two Defensive Standouts Strey, Mattson Help Turn Around Eagles’ Fortunes
Derek Strey came to Eastern Washington as a highly recruited, highly scouted and highly touted linebacker out of Class AAA football power South Kitsap.
Steve Mattson was recruited, sight-unseen, off a radio broadcast of a Class B basketball game.
And that’s only one of several dramatic differences between the two junior defensive standouts, who, according to coach Mike Kramer, have developed into “the sole and guts” of Eastern’s defensive resurgence.
“Those two ARE the reason,” emphasized Kramer, the architect of one of the most remarkable turnarounds in Eastern’s less-than-storied football history. “They are absolutely the story, because they typify what’s happened to us.”
What has happened it this: After suffering through a 3-8 season in 1995, EWU has resurrected its defense and shoved its way into the Division I-AA national rankings and postseason playoff picture.
The 20th-ranked Eagles (6-3 overall, 3-2 Big Sky Conference) close out the home portion of their schedule Saturday afternoon with a 1:05 Woodward Stadium matchup against No. 6 Northern Arizona (8-2 and 5-1).
A victory, coupled with a win at Cal State Northridge next Saturday, would earn EWU at least a share of second place in the top-rated I-AA conference along with some respect that few expected the Eagles to regain.
Strey and Mattson were not among the doubters, even though they labored through the embarrassment of 1995, when Eastern finished last in the Big Sky in every key defensive category.
“We just decided that wasn’t very much fun,” said Strey, a 6-foot-3, 230-pounder, who has made a team-high 100 tackles at middle linebacker. “After the season, each player went into winter conditioning trying to make sure it didn’t happen again.”
“We knew we could only get better from last year,” added Mattson, a 6-5, 257-pound end who leads the Eagles with nine tackles for losses - including 4.5 sacks. “We’re all bigger and stronger, and we don’t get down on each other any more when things start going bad.”
Strey and Mattson both tested at tight end during their early years at EWU and have displayed the soft hands that prompted such experiments by combining for six interceptions this fall. Mattson returned one of his two picks for a touchdown and has also caught two scoring passes as a tight end in goalline situations.
The decisions to move the two from offense, according to Kramer, were based on defensive weaknesses.
Strey, an ill-tempered, chiseled-featured prototype linebacker who runs a 4.7-second 40-yard dash, embraced the change and quickly established himself as a tough, vocal leader.
“Like any linebacker, he’s got a demented side,” Kramer said. “A no-pads day to him is a full-pads day attitude-wise. He’s a big-time player playing at the I-AA level because he got injured his senior year (in high school).
“He’s the best NFL linebacker prospect we’ve had since I’ve been here.” Much of Strey’s drive is derived from his rocky upbringing. “He’s overcome a lot personal obstacles,” Kramer said, noting that Strey’s parents divorced while he was still in high school. “Some of the greatest players in the history of the game are guys with personal things in their closet that they use for motivation, and Derek is certainly one of those guys.”
Strey, who moved in with a teammate during his junior year in high school, said he used the pain of his parents’ breakup to help maintain his focus on football and the opportunities it offered.
“Coming from that, seeing what I saw and living the way we did, I made up my mind I wasn’t going to end up the same way,” Strey explained. “No one in my family ever graduated from college, so I decided to use football to help me get my degree and make something of myself.”
Mattson, on the other hand, stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting. He came from a well-adjusted, small-town family and was a basketball star for Naselle.
“We first recognized him as a junior here during the State B tournament,” Kramer recalled. “We were just listening to the radio guy talk about him and became interested in him as a recruit.”
But to make sure no other schools became involved, Eastern didn’t even approach Mattson about playing football until after his senior year of basketball.
“When you’re a small-town kid and you play in a program like he played in, basketball becomes the biggest thing in your life,” Kramer said. “And we didn’t want to intrude on that too soon.”
The Eagles never made a recruiting visit to Mattson’s home and they never brought him in for a campus visit until long after signing day.
“We did everything over the phone,” Kramer explained. “We weren’t worried about his character, because in those smaller schools, the responsibility of being a good athlete carries over into the classroom and other areas. The players become icons in their own little community.”
Mattson arrived at Eastern as a fuzzy cheeked 195-pounder who seemed much too polite and mild-tempered to play defense. But he discovered the weight room early and added more than 50 pounds and a considerable amount of muscle to his once-slight frame.
What he didn’t add was that hard edge that defines most defensive linemen.
“He’s not your typical defensive line guy,” Kramer said. “Most of those guys are sloppy thugs with hair on their backs about an inch thick. They can’t spell cat with all three letters, and they’d rather sleep in and eat Doritos than lift weights.
“Mattson isn’t a natural hunter-killer. He has to will himself to be nasty. There’s no question, he’s a sheep in wolf’s clothing. But as a sheep, he’s got a strong dagger.”
On the field, Strey is a vocal, in-your-face leader who won’t hesitate to grab a teammate - or opponent - by the facemask to make his point.
Mattson prefers to leave the rah-rah stuff for others, yet the differences in style seem to have produced a happy marriage.
“We get along great,” Strey said. “I’m a little more vocal than most guys and Steve’s a little laid back. But you gotta have a mixture of both types.”
“I know Derek really well, because we came in at the same time,” Mattson added. “He really gets on the other players at times, but I kind of sit back and let my play speak for me.
“There’s definitely a compromise that needs to me made. You can’t have too many vocal guys, or you get dissension. But you need guys like Derek to make sure everybody gets up for the game.”
Despite their different styles and personalities, both Strey and Mattson share a passion for winning.
“Those two, more than anybody, grabbed the bull by the horns after last year’s disaster and responded to what our defensive coaches asked them to do in the weight room,” Kramer said. “They got better, and so did the rest of the team. With both of them leading - in their different ways - it was inevitable.”
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