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Vermont’s Matt Sheftic

February 10, 2004 Columns No Comments

Sheftic Returns Quietly, But At the Top

by Phil Kasiecki

When Matt Sheftic got up to check into Sunday’s game at Northeastern, a big section of the crowd erupted in applause. The Vermont fans were elated to see the 6’8″ senior big man in his first action of the season. He played just six minutes, not scoring and picking up two rebounds, but that’s just a small part of the story.

The story begins in 1999, when Sheftic began his college career, but it’s not until nearly two years later that it becomes a roller coaster ride.

In January of 2001, his sister, Lauren, suffered a brain aneurysm. She went into intensive care for several months after it, while Matt was busy in the heat of the college basketball season. Her illness took a toll on the entire family, and especially on Matt as the season went along. He felt he needed to spend more time with them instead of playing basketball, and decided after the season to take the next year off.

The next academic year, things got more trying for him. Lauren passed away in December, and that came just three months after 9/11, which made for what he described as “a somber time” since he had been (and still is) in ROTC. He knew then that his military work would not just be at peace time.

Inspired by what his sister went through, as well as how fortunate he was to play Division I basketball, he decided to return to the team for the 2002-03 season. Sheftic continued his improvement, boosting his numbers slightly over those of two seasons ago, but he saved the best for last. The Catamounts won the America East Tournament to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in their history, and Sheftic was the Most Outstanding Player with a career-high 23 points in the championship game, two games after a previous career high of 22 points on 10-10 shooting.

But he didn’t stop drawing from his sister there. After tearing the ACL in his right knee in August, the outlook was bleak for this season and it looked like another low point on the roller coaster. As much as before, he still looks at what she went through and how she persevered before passing.

“I say a prayer and ask her to give me the strength that she showed when I play games, and especially now when I’m trying to get back from a knee injury,” Sheftic said. “It’s 7 in the morning, and we’re going to do rehab; it definitely hasn’t been an easy process to get through. But by the same token, I always think about how a knee injury is not even a comparison to the kind of rehab that she did.”

The injury came as he was looking forward to a big senior year, one where the Catamounts would be sure favorites to return to the NCAA Tournament. But like other things he’s experienced, it helped him put his life into perspective, as he knew he had gone through more difficult times. It helped him move to get the surgery done and work as hard as he could on his rehabilitation, even though it looked like he would not play this season and return next year if the NCAA granted him a sixth year of eligibility.

Sheftic’s circumstances led the NCAA to grant him the sixth year in November, when another important life event occurred. He learned that he had been awarded his first request for assignment – military intelligence – and had to make a decision. He could defer his compensation and play next season, taking the risk of likely getting an assignment other than the one he wanted, or he could try to return for some of this season and take the assignment he got. It gave him some mixed emotions at the time.

Working in the FBI or CIA being a lifelong dream of his, and it had a large impact on his decision to accept the assignment and attempt to return this season. He talked with many people, but in the end the assignment was one he couldn’t pass up for the sake of his future.

“I had always wanted to get into either the CIA or the FBI, and when I got military intelligence, it was an unbelievable stepping stone to get into one of those organizations,” he said. “It was too good to turn down.”

Head coach Tom Brennan, who speaks very highly of Sheftic on and off the court, has played no small role in things as well. When Sheftic posed the decision he was faced with to Brennan, the coach figured there was only one decision to make.

“When I told him I got my first choice and if I don’t accept it, I probably won’t get it next year, he said, ‘Well, it sounds like it’s not a choice, really,’ ” Sheftic recalls. “That kind of support really helped me and motivated me to get back this year.”

That support was one more example of what he has found throughout his time in Burlington. Like many who have played at Vermont, as well as Brennan, he speaks fondly of how tight-knit the community is, from the support he got while his sister struggled to survive to the everyday life of a college student. It’s all helped transform him into a different young man than he was when he first arrived on campus.

“The college life has been unbelievable, especially at Vermont, because we have so many people who care about us,” he recalls. “I think I’ve learned a lot, and when you couple that with the life experiences with my family, staying at school and going to Vermont has been an unbelievable and rewarding experience for me.”

Sheftic realizes he has been blessed with many opportunities in life, from playing Division I basketball to his upcoming opportunity in the military. His days on the hardwood are drawing to a close, but he has a bigger calling ahead. In May, he will graduate from the university with a degree in Business Administration, then should be called to duty and begin on his path to helping others have the same freedom and opportunity that he has had. He’s at one of the peaks on the roller coaster ride, but this time it may last a little longer.


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