Archive for April, 2015

South View’s Matthew Novak sprints past Autism

April 1, 2015

This is from the Sept. 23 edition of the Fayetteville Observer…

From the bleachers, South View’s Matthew Novak looks like any other high school soccer player.

Look closer and you’ll see that his No. 14 shirt fits like everyone else’s and his runs and passes sync up with those of his teammates.

He’s tall and athletic-looking, and presses opposing defenses with his tireless energy.

He wears a captain’s armband with pride and jogs off the pitch when substituted, grabs a water bottle and has a seat on the bench to wait to be subbed back in.

Off the pitch, things are a bit different for Matthew.

Matthew, a senior forward for the Tigers, is on the Autism spectrum.

Autism is a neurological disorder, characterized by social impairments, communication difficulties and restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behavior.

Its severity depends on where individuals fall on that spectrum. Because of the wide range between mild cases and more severe ones, no two cases of the disorder are exactly alike.

Or, put more simply, he’s not your average teenager.

Matthew is considered high-functioning, which means that – in many ways – he looks and acts like any other senior in high school.

In other ways, however, he faces a unique set of challenges.

Things like driving a car, shopping and basic social interactions that come naturally to most 17 year olds are far more difficult for those living on the Autism spectrum.

But on the pitch, the disorder can almost be seen as a benefit.

“When I met Matthew, I was intrigued by his focus,” South View coach Robert Gamble said. “His focus is sports. He’s high-functioning in sports. He’s 150 percent all the time. He’ll pass out (before he stops), just to keep from disappointing anybody. … (His running) is his hyper-focus from Autism.”

His mother, Donna Novak, agrees.

“He loves all sports, especially soccer,” she said. “Whatever it takes to make the play, he’s going to find a way to do it.”

On Sept. 11, Matthew’s hard work paid off in a goal during South View’s 8-1 win over Hoke County.

“It was awesome. It was my first goal ever,” he said. “I didn’t expect to score, but I tried my best and I got a goal and I loved it.”

He wasn’t the only one.

“He’s an inspiration for a lot of people,” Gamble said. “That goal was magical. He’s still talking about it.”

It’s good that Matthew doesn’t mind reliving the goal, since his mother was busy working the concession stand for a South View football game when it happened.

“I hear about it every day,” she said.

As much as he enjoyed the goal, his relishes his role as captain even more.

“It means that coach picked me out,” he said. “He knows I can give leadership. He knows I can be respectful and control stuff on the field. Basically be a good leader.”

Matthew’s athletic success isn’t limited to the pitch, either.

He’s won 15 gold medals in Special Olympics, but it was a bronze medal hanging around his neck during an interview with a reporter recently.

“This one I got in basketball for nationals in New Jersey,” he said. “We played teams from states like Kentucky, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania. We got bronze. Our coach, Coach Miller, coached us good and our other coach, Robert Novak helped out a lot.”

In addition to his Special Olympics exploits, Matthew volunteers for Camp Challenge – a summer camp for children and adolescents with disabilities.

“He’s got a good heart,” his mother said. “At Camp Challenge, he’s always trying to help the smaller ones with sports.

“He played shortstop for the Special Olympic softball team, and he’d cover second, third and even the outfield. He was all over the place. He’s a great guy. I’m very proud of him.”

He also serves as a manager for the South View baseball team, works in the concession stand with his mother and has been an intern with the Fayetteville SwampDogs.

“He wants to be as quote-unquote ‘normal’ as possible, and he does that through sports,” Gamble said.

“Every once in a while you get what I call a day brightener,” South View principal Brian Edkins said. “You can be having a bad day, and you see that smile and it puts everything in perspective.

“If I had 1,800 of him here, this would be the best place in the world.”

Matthew plans to take some classes at Fayetteville Technical Community College next year when his high school career is over – with an eye on staying close to the game he loves.

“I want to try to be a coach for soccer,” he said.

It doesn’t seem likely that Autism will slow him down.

“Autism is like a disability, but anybody can do what their mind states for them to do,” he said. “Mine’s about soccer. Some kids say that you can’t do anything, but if your mind’s set, you can do anything you want.”


Mia Hamm, Kristine Killy, Tisha Venturini Hoch to host soccer camp in Southern Pines

April 1, 2015

My story from the March 30 edition of the Fayetteville Observer…

Three weeks before the start of the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup, young players from across the Cape Fear region will get the chance to share the field with three former members of the U.S. Women’s National Team.

Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly and Tisha Venturini Hoch will be hosting the Team First Soccer Academy in Southern Pines on May 16-17 in conjunction with the Athletic Club of the Sandhills.

Hamm is a two-time FIFA Women’s Player of the Year, two-time World Cup winner, two-time Olympic gold medalist, four-time national champion at the University of North Carolina – as are Lilly and Venturini Hoch – and is a member of the World Soccer Hall of Fame.

Lilly is also a two-time World Cup and gold medal winner, and with 352 appearances for the national team, she is the most capped (games played) player in history, man or woman.

Venturini Hoch, in addition to winning a World Cup and a gold medal, won the 1994 Hermann Trophy as the top NCAA Division I player, and she scored the first goal in women’s Olympic soccer history in 1996.

Hamm said they consider camps such as the one in Southern Pines as their chance to pay it forward.

“We always feel so honored wherever we go,” Hamm said in a phone interview. “But to be able to come back home, so close to where we grew as people and players at UNC, it means a lot to us.”

“For us, it’s all about the kids in the area getting to have them on the same field,” AC Sandhills executive director Todd Abbey said. “You don’t get opportunities like that very often.”

And unlike some camps, where big name hosts drop by for the opening and closing events, campers will get the chance to learn up close from Hamm, Lilly and Venturini Hoch.

“One of the things we pride ourselves on is that the four of us are really hands-on,” Hamm said. “We’re involved in every minute of every session. We kind of roam around and offer support and coaching. We’re constantly on the field to enhance and clarify the themes of the day.”

For Hamm, the chance to bring the camp to Southern Pines appealed to her small-town background.

“One of the things we love is to be able to go to places that aren’t necessarily hotbeds of soccer,” she said. “I’m from a small town. Kristine’s from a small town. Tisha’s from a small town. There’s talent in small towns, and we just want to be able to share our experiences with those players.”

The fact that the camp is close to Fort Bragg resonates with Hamm, who is the daughter of an Air Force colonel.

“For families in the military, sports can be a great icebreaker,” she said. “Moving around as much as we did, sports opened doors for me for new relationships. As I got older, it got harder to move. Sports were a great place to kind of get lost. I found a lot of comfort in sport, and especially soccer.”

There’s currently a gap in the camp schedule around the Women’s World Cup, and that’s not a coincidence.

“Kristine’s doing some stuff in Canada” for the World Cup, Hamm said. “To be a fan of the sport, you can learn by watching, boys and girls.”

The Americans haven’t won a World Cup since Hamm, Lilly and Venturini Hoch achieved that feat in 1999. Hamm is confident that this year’s squad can break the string of recent near-misses on the world stage.

“I think they can do it,” she said of the team’s title hopes. “It’s never easy, and I think the players understand that. They’ve got a great mix of veteran leadership and young players that I love. In the end, you just want to peak at the right time. They had a good result in Portugal (at a warm-up tournament), and I think they’ll build on that.”