Smyrna’s Matthews feels good about decision to come home

Former Smyrna High basketball standout Caleb Matthews was the state Player of the Year in 2018. (Delaware State News file photo)

SMYRNA — Caleb Matthews first went to New Jersey feeling pretty good about his situation.

But then, slowly but surely, things seemed to slip away from the former Smyrna High basketball standout.

A freshman at NJIT, Matthews was sidelined for seven weeks early in preseason after injuring his ankle.

Then, when the cast was being cut off, Matthews suffered a deep cut in his foot that kept him out for another five weeks.

“By the time I got back, we were probably six or seven games in (to the season) and I was already buried in the rotation,” he said. “I was getting homesick and I wasn’t able to do what I love. Right around Christmas I decided this really wasn’t the place for me any more.”

By January, Matthews had left the NCAA Division I Highlanders and had transferred to Division II Wilmington University. A 6-foot-4 guard, the 2018 Gatorade state Player of the Year practiced with Wilmington for the last few months of the season.

Delaware State News file photo After being injured, Matthews played in 10 games while a freshman at NJIT last winter.

He’ll have three months of eligibility remaining starting with next season.

Wilmington was a logical landing spot for Matthews considering both his dad, Jason, and older sister, Emma, played basketball for the Wildcats.

Matthews said he’s known seventh-year Wilmington coach Dan Burke for several years.

“When my sister was there, I used to talked to Burke,” said Matthews. “I knew he was a really good guy. So, as soon as I left NJIT, I knew I wanted to stay close to home. That was a perfect fit there.”

There were a couple players already on the Wildcats’ roster who Matthews played AAU ball with. They also picked up former Cape Henlopen High standout Randy Rickards, who played in junior college the last couple years.

Matthews said he’s excited about Wilmington’s future. The Wildcats went 11-19 last winter after losing in the CACC Tournament semifinals.

In 2017-18, Wilmington finished 19-10 — its best showing as a Division II program.

“I think we have a really good team,” said Matthews. “And I think the cool part about it is there’s a lot of Delaware guys.”

Matthews would like to think he’s a bigger, stronger player than he was in 2018 when he averaged 21.8 points per game, 8.4 rebounds and 4.7 assists as Smyrna reached the DIAA state finals for the second straight year.

He spent a season at Mount Zion Prep in Baltimore after high school while being part of Division I program like NJIT — even for a short time — doesn’t hurt, either.

“When recruiting players for NJIT, I always look for three things: academics, character and skill,” Highlanders coach Brian Kennedy said when Matthews signed. “Caleb definitely checks these boxes. Labeled as an excellent shooter with great range and a high basketball IQ, Caleb is much more than that. He has great court vision and has proven to be a terrific passer.”

In 10 games with NJIT, Matthews played a total of 49 minutes and scored 18 points. He was 6-for-12 from three-point range with eight rebounds.

Matthews thinks he would have been able to help the Highlanders if he hadn’t gotten injured. He was one of six freshmen on NJIT’s roster last year.

“I felt like if I had come back right after that ankle injury, I probably would have been in the rotation by the time the season started,” said Matthews. “I felt like I could have helped. It will turn out to be a blessing in disguise, playing with all those guys, even though it didn’t work out with me staying there.

“I’ll probably always have regrets — just saying, what if I would have stayed?” he added. “But I just wanted to come home.”

As an accomplished high school player as he was, Matthews beat some odds to fulfill his dream of earning a Division I college scholarship. All things considered, though, he feels good about where he is now — both physically and mentally.

“I’m definitely at peace with it now,” Matthews said about his decision. “At practices and games (at NJIT), I never felt like I was out of place. I felt like I belonged with all those guys. I had fun playing in the games.

“But I know I made the right decision. I got to do what I wanted to do, now I just want to have fun for the next three years again.”