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Top-flight athletic ability excels in unusual sport NU freshman going to world baton championships

NIAGARA FALLS -- Jeff Matiash has exceptional hands, agility and hand-eye coordination.

The Niagara Falls High graduate and freshman at Niagara University has all the tools one would expect a world-class athlete to possess. But the 6-foot 18-year-old doesn't play hockey or basketball, or participate in track and field.

Matiash is a rhythmic baton twirler, and a scary good one at that.

He can toss a baton several stories in the air while doing cartwheels underneath the airborne stick before catching it without letting it hit the ground. He can toss a baton so it spins five times in the air and catch it under his leg while leaping in the air. He can dance and toss the big stick in the air and catch it to the beat of the music during his 2 1/2 -minute dance routine.

Makes dunking a basketball seem kind of easy now, doesn't it?

"I don't think [baton twirling is] very easy," said Matiash, who last summer qualified for next spring's world baton championships in Ghent, Belgium. He will compete in the advanced rhythmic baton competition in the male 16-and-over division.

"It's taken me 15 years to build up a decent ability," he said last week. "It's like any other sport. You have to work at it to become good at it."

Except baton twirling isn't like any other sport.

Sure one could learn how to spin one baton, but it's quite another matter to twirl it while moving to a musical beat or to twirl multiple batons at once while tossing them up in the air like juggling clubs.

Matiash, who played soccer and baseball until age 13, can do all that and then some.

"To do it at his level, most people have to have some kind of natural talent or ability as far as hand-eye coordination," said Judy Edwards, Matiash's coach at Niagara Royalettes and Majorettes Dance Studio. "You don't get too many people at his [talent] level in the country. . . . Some people are born with the ability to do it, and others aren't."

Matiash is the first student -- male or female -- from the 33-year-old Niagara Royalettes and Majorettes studio to earn a spot in the world championships. He earned the right to participate in the competition April 9-12 by placing third in the U.S. Nationals last summer at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Ind.

While earning a chance to participate against the world's best is quite the honor, it doesn't come cheap. The cost of the trip figures to be about $2,500.

To help defray some of the trip's cost, the Matiash family hope to raise funds with a spaghetti dinner and basket auction from 4 to 10 p.m. Saturday at St. John de LaSalle Church on Buffalo Avenue.

Dinner will be served from 5 to 7 p.m. and costs $10. One sheet of 25 tickets for the auction costs an additional $10. There also will be live music starting at 7 by the band Nite Cruise.

"It's still a little shocking I made it [to worlds] because I never expected it," said Matiash, who also coaches at the dance studio, practices 10 hours a week and attends school full time. "It's something I've wanted since I was 7. It's still not real [to me] that I'm going yet."

It'll start to feel real once he boards the plane and flies across the Atlantic to Europe, especially since he's never flown.

"It'll be a nice adventure for him," said Matiash's mother, Mary, the longtime athletic department secretary at Niagara University. "He really wanted to do it because he never thought he would because of his age and being in college [now]."

Matiash's older sister, Brittany, is the reason he picked up the craft. He used to imitate the drills and tricks she did before he started taking lessons at age 3. Brittany, who is four years older than Jeff and used to be his partner in pairs events, doesn't compete anymore but helps teach beginners at Edwards' studio.

"He taught himself the basics and took a liking to it," Edwards said. "It's always been a challenge for him to do harder and harder tricks. He enjoyed it and [the work has] paid off."

Participating in a perceived girls activity resulted in Matiash taking his share of ribbing over the years. But once one watches him perform, it's easy to get an appreciation for his talents.

"They started to accept me and were proud of what I was able to do," he said.

World championships are held every three years in male and female divisions. Matiash has participated in nationals in the past, but his timing was slightly off as he appeared during the nonqualifying years. This time, his timing was perfect.

Loyal Niagara basketball fans might remember watching Matiash perform during halftime of a basketball game about five years ago. It was Calvin Murphy Night at the Gallagher Center and a bunch of Edwards' students, including Matiash, provided some additional entertainment to the evening's festivities. The crew's presence there wasn't a coincidence, since Murphy was a very good baton twirler himself during his college days.

"He just said to stick in there and keep practicing," Matiash said of the conversation he had with the Purple Eagles' scoring great and former NBAer. "I don't think people realize the athleticism involved until they see the bigger tricks [done]. Not many people can do it."

e-mail: mrodriguez@buffnews.com

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