By Trey Williams
Science Hill receiver Elijah Mathes is excited about catching on with East Tennessee State.
Mathes and fellow Hilltoppers Quintin Alibocas and Brett Marcus revealed their college choices on Signing Day (Feb. 3), as did David Crockett’s Ian Martin.
Alibocas, a 6-foot-3, 295-pound defensive lineman, was part of a touted Chattanooga recruiting class. Martin is also joining an in-state FCS defense at Tennessee State, and fellow linebacker Marcus will continue his career at Case Western University, an NCAA Division III program in Cleveland, Ohio.
While Marcus wanted to move north for college, the 6-foot, 179-pound Mathes was happy to stay home. ETSU assistant coach Mike Rader, a former receiver at Science Hill and ETSU who started on the Hilltoppers’ state championship baseball team in 1998, helped sell Mathes on staying put.
“The first time I talked to him I liked him,” Mathes said. “He just kept telling about how he grew up in Johnson City and playing at Science Hill. He knows how it is to go and play at ETSU and stay in your hometown. … He said he had a great experience.”
So did Mathes’ uncle Al Anderson, a Floridian who lettered three seasons at ETSU (1976-78).
The Big East Conference Athlete of the Year, Mathes, who expects to get a shot at slot receiver, scored 14 touchdowns as a senior after scoring 16 as a junior. He said the best 40-yard dash he’s clocked is a 4.6, but he looks “football fast” while running 80-plus yards for a TD in the ankle-deep mud at Hardin Valley and during long gains against the likes of Maryville, Dobyns-Bennett and Jefferson County.
“I think Elijah’s going to do great,” Science Hill coach Stacy Carter said. “They need a kid like that. He’s a playmaker. He was wanting to stay around here. He was wanting to go there from the get-go. It was just the perfect fit for him.
“He’s a fantastic kid. How he’s grown and matured as a person and the leadership he’s brought to the team – he’s just been a pleasure to be around; he really has. I’m going to miss him.”
ETSU coach Carl Torbush was happy to get another Hilltopper receiver. When he was an assistant at North Carolina, he signed Science Hill receiver Toby Patton, a state champion in the 100 meters.
“We’re glad Elijah stayed at home after playing at Science Hill,” Torbush said. “He’s a two-way guy, as he was recruited as a cornerback but has athletic skills that can transfer over to the offensive side of the ball. He’s an excellent athlete and plays the game very hard.”
ETSU, in its first season since resurrecting a football program that was disbanded following the 2003 season, played this past fall at Science Hill’s Kermit Tipton Stadium. It’ll also play there next season before moving into a new stadium on campus in 2017.
“It’s going to be a nice setup when they get it finished,” Mathes said.
Mathes eagerly anticipates the setup at Bristol Motor Speedway, where ETSU will play Western Carolina this coming season. The Catamounts include former Science Hill safety Mikey White, who played as a true freshman this past season.
“Actually, when I tweeted that I’d committed to ETSU, Mikey was the first person to text me,” Mathes said. “He was just telling me congrats and he was glad I found a place where I fit in and I’d be able to play and he couldn’t wait to see me at Bristol next year. It could be a possibility where I’m lined up in the slot and Mikey could roll over top. It’d be crazy, honestly, just seeing him in a different-colored jersey. Just being there – it’s going to be crazy.”
Mathes will also face former ‘Toppers when Alibocas and Malcolm White’s Mocs visit Johnson City on Oct. 1. Alibocas said he would’ve strongly considered ETSU had the interest been a two-way street, but sounded ecstatic about joining a UTC program coming off a playoff season.
“I wouldn’t have minded living here four years and going to ETSU,” Alibocas said, “but Chattanooga’s where I feel right at home.”
A two-time all-conference player, Alibocas said he had offers from Navy, Eastern Kentucky, Tennessee State, Tennessee Tech, Murray State, West Virginia Wesleyan and a preferred walk-on option at Tennessee.
“Quintin was one that we got on early,” Chattanooga coach Russ Huesman said. “We had him in camp and we really like him. He is an athletic guy. He has some size. He is a great kid. He committed to us during the season and we feel really good about him as a defensive tackle. He is athletic enough he can do a lot of different things.”
Watching national runner-up Jacksonville State eke out two victories against UTC this past season helped sway Alibocas.
“I want to say while I’m there we’re gonna win an FCS championship,” he said. “We’re gonna beat North Dakota State. We’re gonna get back at Jacksonville State.”
The non-conference schedule couldn’t be ignored, either.
“They play Alabama this year the last game of the season,” said Alibocas, who was born in Fort Myers, Fla., and wants to study engineering. “Next year they play LSU. The year after that they play Alabama again. And my fourth year they’ll play Kentucky.”
Former ‘Topper Malcolm White, a true freshman this past season, hosted Alibocas on his visit. Alibocas fondly recalls playing with White at Science Hill and said that the Hilltoppers team when White was a senior in 2014 might’ve been the best he played on, assuming the 2012 with Reed Hayes at quarterback wasn’t.
Alibocas played quite a bit as a freshman on that 2012 team which started 9-0 before giving up a 15-point fourth-quarter lead at Dobyns-Bennett when the Indians had Malik Foreman and Devaun Swafford.
Alibocas, Mathes and Marcus all thanked coach Stacy Carter and his staff. Mathes also noted playing for his father, Harold, during youth football, and Alibocas thanked Science Hill assistant/guidance counselor Benny Tolley profusely.
“Coach Tolley is the greatest man I have ever met,” Alibocas said. “He’s so inspirational to me. He’s like a father figure to me. I look up to that man. He’s like family. He just puts a smile on my face. When I’s down I could talk to him about everything.”
Carter seems to think that Chattanooga got a steal in Alibocas.
“We’re excited for Q,” Carter said. “UTC is playing at a real high level right now in that Southern Conference and he’s excited to go down there. He loves the coaching staff and he’s got Malcolm down there. I think it’s gonna be a good fit for him.”
Alibocas said Carter’s program should prove to be good preparation for the next level.
“Coach Carter is such a great guy,” Alibocas said. “Man, that guy, he takes control. He is the boss. He’s also like a father figure, but he’s definitely a coach before anything.”
Martin’s father Isaac, who played at ETSU in the ‘90s, began coaching Martin when he was four years old.
“My dad was my coach all through Junior Toppers,” Martin said. “We went undefeated basically the whole time I was playing on the Red team (through middle school).”
Dad also helped iron out a visit to Tennessee State, where Ian said he will happily embrace the history of a school that’s educated everyone from Wilma Rudolph and Oprah Winfrey to football greats Ed “Too Tall” Jones, Richard Dent and Joe Gilliam.
“That’s all I’ve ever wanted to be – a D-I player,” Martin said. “And when it finally came true I was speechless, honestly.”
Along with his father, Martin said he appreciated his uncle, Bart Lyon, Crockett basketball coach John Good and Pioneers football coach Jeremy Bosken for helping pave the way to Nashville. Bosken said Martin’s senior season was certain to spur interest, particularly performances like the one in a win against Morristown East.
“He really blossomed in understanding his role and what we were asking him to do,” Bosken said. “Academically, he’s very intelligent too, and that transferred over to the field. … He caught three or four two-point conversions and the reason we were able to convert other two-point conversions is because they were so focused on him.
“He helped us athletically (at linebacker). He can match up in the run game and in the passing game. That’s what Tennessee State’s looking at – his athleticism for a big guy. I mean he’s 6-foot and close to 230 and can move like he can, that’s a rare find. With his quickness you can move him all over the field.”
Bosken noted Martin’s performances in wins against Tennessee High (40-26) on Senior Night and at Daniel Boone (52-26) in his high school finale.
“I just knew on Senior Night I wasn’t going to see the home field any more so I had to leave with a bang (against Tennessee High),” Martin said. “And then I was not leaving Boone without that musket.”
Marcus wreaked havoc at linebacker this past season at Science Hill, including a 16-tackle masterpiece in a win against Dobyns-Bennett that he ranked among his favorites.
“I don’t think we gave them as much credit as we should have before the game,” Marcus said, “and they were one of the hardest games we played. Even though they didn’t fare as well in the conference as we did, they were still a very good football team.”
But Marcus likes hitting the books as much as hitting ball-carriers, which is part of why Case Western University contacted him prior to his junior year. Marcus is reticent when discussing his entrance exam scores (32 on the ACT and 1990 on the SAT), but will quickly tell you that Case Western is the nation’s 37th-ranked school according to USA Today. He plans to study pre-law/history/political science.
“He’s going to get a quality, quality education and he’s going there to play football, too,” Carter said. “He had a tremendous year for us.”
Marcus also considered Johns Hopkins and Washington University.
“I always was of the mindset that I wasn’t going to school to play football, I was playing football to go to school,” said Marcus, who is also passionate about the prospects of Saturdays as a freshman outside linebacker. “It’s a shallow position and I feel like I can go in there and work hard and I’ll be in a great position to play early.”
Among those Marcus said inspired him were his dad and fellow coach Brian “Candyman” Gibson, who helped coach him growing up.
“They really helped me get coached up at a young age,” he said, “and how to actually play the game right.”