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Austin High senior Tomo Matsuo plans to pass on a college scholarship for soccer to focus on his studies in chemical engineering at Alabama-Huntsville next fall.
Tomo’s goal: Engineering degree
Austin soccer star passes on scholarships to focus on academics
By Bradley Handwerger
Upon first glance, Tomo Matsuo looks like your average teenager.
Spiked black hair. Jeans instead of khakis. Always smiling.
But take a moment and listen to him, and you quickly will realize that the Austin High senior isn’t a typical high school student.
A standout soccer player, Matsuo could play the sport at almost any small college he wants. In addition, NCAA Division I schools Memphis, UAB, South Carolina and Kentucky have recruited him to play.
At 18, Matsuo already thinks like a 30-year-old and figures that a college degree in what he wants to do is more important than four years of college soccer.
Memphis, UAB, South Carolina and Kentucky have recruited the Japan native to play soccer.
So that’s why he’s headed to Alabama-Huntsville, where he’ll study toward a degree in chemical engineering.
“He’s very mature,” said Lewis White, Matsuo’s coach at Austin. “He knows that by going to college for a chemical engineering degree, he has made a choice that he’s going to have to focus on academics. He understands that.
White added: “He’s not willing to make that sacrifice to his ultimate goal.”
Come August, Matsuo won’t be on practice fields practicing his shots, his step-over moves. He won’t be perfecting the Cruyff turn or defending a breakaway.
Instead, he’ll have put soccer away and will take prerequisite courses on his way to his degree.
How many 18-year-olds do you know who will make that decision?
“I wanted to focus on academics more than sports,” said Matsuo, who carries a 3.71 grade point average. “There’s less percentage of making it up there in sports than academics. You get a lot more opportunity by going to college.”
Matsuo has led Austin to a 14-5-1 record this year, and he has contributed 14 goals and seven assists. Being the competitor that he is, he hates to lose. When Decatur beat Austin 1-0 in the Bob Jones Invitational on March 30, Matsuo was furious.
He walked off the field, an angry look plastered on his face. He threw down his jersey, visibly frustrated with a result that he was unable to change. Decatur’s game plan kept the ball away from Matsuo for nearly the entire match.
“It’s hard for me to lose any game, but that was a special game because it was Austin-Decatur,” Matsuo said. “And I really couldn’t do anything that game. It just got to me.”
Teammate Carlos Hernandez has seen what Matsuo can do with a soccer ball at his feet. He’s impressed.
“He has this way of playing, rhythm and everything,” Hernandez said. “He’s very in control.”
In control can be how you describe Matsuo off the field as well. Talk to him about his decision to forgo college soccer and his face doesn’t change. He answers as if it’s a normal decision.
His teammates realize it’s not.
From left, Austin High soccer players Tomo Matsuo, Bandon Harriman and Mark Potter enjoy some idle time before practice.
“I respect him a lot,” senior Brandon Harriman said. “He’s known for playing soccer. No one realizes that he puts a lot of effort into schoolwork too, and that he’s going to do that instead of soccer.”
Matsuo won’t consider playing soccer at UAH.
Tomo’s older brother Mitsu agreed to play there three years ago, and his experience was less than stellar. Mitsu doesn’t play anymore.
From a coach’s standpoint, White said he sees the respect Tomo has for Mitsu.
“If his older brother says this is how it works for me, Tomo is going to look at that and say, ‘OK, I’m going to base my decision on what my older brother has told me,’ ” White said.
That’s not to say the two Matsuo brothers play the game the same way. Far from it, said White, who also coached Mitsu at Austin.
“Absolute raw soccer ball-handling skill, Mitsu has it more than Tomo does,” White said. “But Tomo has more of a killer kind of personality. He’s more likely to fire one at you with no warning.”
The decision to focus on academics and not athletics came somewhat without warning for those not close to Matsuo.
The youngster who came to the United States nearly eight years ago with his family focused on soccer from the beginning. In hopes of getting a college scholarship, he played club soccer as a sophomore instead of for Austin.
At that point, Memphis was pursuing him hard. He still likes the coach and loves the program. But with is future at stake, he looked closer at the school.
He didn’t like what he saw.
“When he was considering Memphis he loved the coach up there and the program is outstanding, but they don’t have an engineering program,” White said. “That pretty much closed the door on Memphis.”
Matsuo does still have one sports-related goal before his soccer-playing days end.
“I want to go to the playoffs in my senior year,” Matsuo said. “I want to leave something that I did for this team, that we — all the seniors — took them to the playoffs.”
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