Despite cancer diagnosis, heart attack, Rachel Matakas leads Valley Vista to third straight title

Valley Vista coach Rachel Matakas led the Valley Vista girls basketball team to its third straight title despite health challenges she faced during the 2021-22 season. (Photo by Hogan Armstrong/Cronkite News)

Jennah Isai, center, and her Valley Vista teammates have been inspired to successfully battle adversity after watching the fighting spirit of their head coach. (Photo by Hogan Armstrong/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – In the 6A girls basketball state championship game, Valley Vista coach Rachel Matakas paced the sideline, barked out orders and was locked in on every aspect of the game. So comfortable did she seem in her surroundings, few could have known the trials she had faced.

“It has been a pretty tough year,” Matakas said about leading the Surprise High School. “But I’m blessed. I’m here, I’m upright and I thank God every day. Obviously, there’s a reason I’m here, with what I do and why I do it.”

Last August, Matakas was diagnosed with cancer. The stress from the frightening news led to a severe heart attack that sent Matakas to the hospital, where she was rushed into surgery. Her road to recovery prevented her from being with her team at the start of the season.

A team-oriented coach, Matakas is actively involved with the players, often letting the leaders speak up in the middle of games while she takes a back seat. Because she had instilled in them this independence, her players were able to stay the course as if each was a part in a self-driving car built by Matakas.

“I was in constant contact with my coaches,” Matakas said. “I was taught it is very good to let your coaches know what is going on, to keep in constant communication, really because it is super important to keep that ship moving forward.”

It’s one thing to have the instructions for success and another to have the mental fortitude to execute in the face of adversity – both what they were facing on the court and what Matakas was facing away from it.

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“We had our moments, we had our moments of, ‘Oh boy, is this it? This is not Matakas,’” assistant coach Zon Thompson said. “However, this team is so resilient, so supportive of one another. They just took it in stride, and it brought them real close.”

And rally they did. Even without Matakas stalking the sideline and fiercely commanding the action, her players felt her presence, channeled her intensity and never missed a beat. The Monsoon finished 16-2, produced blowout after blowout, and didn’t lose to a single girls basketball program in the state of Arizona.

Their only non-tournament losses came against the third-ranked team in the nation, Sierra Canyon (California), and Anchorage Christian (Alaska). Their season, which began under a cloud of doubt, became a clear mission to succeed for their fearless leader, Matakas.

Arizona’s Gatorade Player of the Year, Jennah Isai, a Top 40 recruit by, kept the team focused on its mission to win. With or without Matakas, Isai was determined not to let her teammates go down the wrong path and deconstruct Matakas’ solid framework.

“We faced a lot of adversity through the year and through past years,” Isai said. “We always check on Matakas, we are always together, all the time, I think just being there for each other and supporting one another really got us through it.”

After clinching her third title in a row, and her fifth title in six years, Matakas said she never doubted how things would go. Then again, she is one to always hold a positive attitude. She hasn’t let anything stop her from doing what she does best, coach and win.

“I’m going to be fine,” Matakas said. “I have always been a fighter my whole life. Nothing has ever come easy, so this doesn’t surprise me.”

Joe McHugh Joe Mc-hue
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Joe McHugh expects to graduate in May 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. McHugh has interned with Times Media Group and Phoenix Magazine, and freelanced for Pasadena Weekly. He is working for the Phoenix sports bureau.

Hogan Armstrong Hoe-gan Arm-str-aw-ng
Sports Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Hogan Armstrong expects to graduate in spring 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Armstrong, who was a research and development intern for Criminal Minded Media, is working for the Phoenix sports bureau.