To look at Providence High School lacrosse midfielder Matt Brady today, it's hard to believe he was once just a gangly, 140-pound freshman, unsure of himself on the field.
"When he was a freshman, we really weren't sure what we were going to do with him," said head coach William Humphrey. "He always had the ability and he always worked really hard, but I think a combination of being on the varsity team as a freshman and growing into his body was kind of psychologically a lot of pressure on him."
Brady is quick to laugh at his former self. "I'm sure my eyes were about the size of half dollars," he said, remembering his first varsity experience.
You can almost imagine the blue eyes that focus intently on opponents today, wide with wonder at the beginning. But these days, Brady - a 6-foot, 175-pound all-state honorable mention selection - has set himself worlds apart from that player.
"He's a senior this year, and he's come such a long way in his four years," Humphrey said. "He's actually one player I can depend on for almost anything.
"Over the years he's just kind of gotten better and better each year, and he's physically filled out. Now he's a mature senior, going to college to play lacrosse. He's like a coach on the field; he makes very few mistakes."
Brady - who unlike many of his teammates does not play any other sport - has completely dedicated himself to lacrosse. And as a left-hander, he adds a facet many teams don't have.
"He started out as a gangly left-handed shooter," said teammate and co-captain Braxton Deaver. "But he's easily one of the best midfielders in the state of North Carolina today. Everybody is usually right-handed, and having a left-hander who can consistently shoot and score does a lot for (our) program."The player Brady once was watched his more confident teammates, Deaver and third co-captain Konner Scroggins, succeed, and it motivated him to get better. Now the three work together to defend their state title and keep Panther tradition going. (The Panthers (11-3) traveled to North Mecklenburg (8-2) on Friday for the first round of the state championships.)
"I think it's good for the younger group having me and Braxton and Konner here to guide them through, and I hope they take it seriously," Brady said.
"Braxton is still the force; Konner is playing really well on attack ... he's the finesse, and me, I guess, I'm the lefty."
Next year when Deaver is in Durham, Scroggins will be in Upstate New York at Hobart College, while Brady will be in Pennsylvania at Susquehanna University.
They may all have come a long way from their beginnings with Matthews Youth Lacrosse in fifth grade, or with the South Charlotte Cyclones before joining the Panthers, but Brady hasn't forgotten that wide-eyed kid he was. That guy is part of what makes him such an effective leader today.
"Braxton is the leader by action, but Matt is the leader by example," said Humphrey.
"I think I really try to make myself a role model for the younger kids," said Brady, "and I really help them because I know what they are feeling like, being the smallest one on the varsity roster. I really try to help them become better players and teach what they need to know and what coach taught me."