The list of college lacrosse programs that would like to bring Matt Sluka into the fold includes the bluest of the bluebloods. The Kellenberg senior has drawn serious interest from the likes of Johns Hopkins, Denver, North Carolina, Penn State and Loyola. Most top lacrosse players would envy the situation.
And yet none of these programs is a good bet to land him.
The 6-2, 205-pound Sluka started to fall in love with his other sport — football — as he quarterbacked the Firebirds to a CHSFL junior varsity championship as a sophomore. By the end of a junior season where he helped transform the Kellenberg varsity from a 1-8 afterthought to an 11-0 CHSFL Class AA champion, football had become his true passion.
The Roslyn Heights product capped a Newsday All-Long Island season by running for five touchdowns and throwing for another as the Firebirds trounced Fordham Prep and Boston College-bound quarterback Matt Vallece, 54-17, in the title game. In all he rushed for 1,619 yards and 24 touchdowns and passed for 984 yards and 10 touchdowns.
“I haven’t experienced the sort of team bonding you get in football anywhere else and that’s what really makes it fun for me,” he said this week at Kellenberg’s week-long football camp. “Football has a way of taking you over and getting inside. We’re together all day for this week — practicing together, eating together, sleeping over at school — and you can’t beat that bond you form with your teammates.”
He’s been equally taken with football’s intoxicating effect on the entire Kellenberg community. “We have a game this season against [Class AAA] Chaminade [Oct. 14] and people — teammates, classmates, friends from other schools, parents, long-time Kellenberg fans — are already talking about it,” Sluka said. “It’s going to be really big.”
Just as Sluka helped transform the Firebirds in 2017, that season also transformed him. Coach Kevin Hanifan said the slender and sinewy signal-caller of the JV champ arrived for that preseason having filled out and added some 20 pounds and “on the run it made him even more dangerous.”
“Matt was always great at making defenders miss him with his moves — probably something that translated from his open-field play in lacrosse. He could also outrun a lot of guys,” Hanifan said. “But with the added strength and power he could now run over and through people.”
Wideout Sean Boll of Seaford is among Sluka’s closest friends. He saw the added strength bring out something new. “It turned out that he likes the hitting,” Boll said. “It gives him a different edge. He started playing like no one could stop him.”
The most-significant growth point however may have been the Firebirds’ Oct. 7 win over Fordham Prep in a matchup of unbeatens. Kellenberg trailed late only to prevail 34-24 on Sluka touchdown runs of 80 and 42 yards. Then-senior Brendan Whitehead, now a freshman at Sacred Heart University, said “we knew from the start he was one of our best athletes and would change our team, but he turned it up a gear in that game — it was like he was unstoppable.”
Robert Sluka, Matt’s father, described him as “as nervous as I’d seen him before that game [with] being matched against a Division I quarterback and needing to find a way to outscore [Fordham Prep].” He witnessed a different kind of growth following the win.
Matt always talks strategy with his father before a game. Robert said that before the win, they might look at video “and Matt would wonder how he was going to beat” an opposing defense. Afterward he said “Matt would watch video and tell me how he was going to beat them.”
Sluka’s versatility behind center — the elusive and powerful running ability combined with throwing an accurate ball — has flourished because he’s grown as a split-second decision-maker. Hanifan explained that in the Firebirds’ spread offense “every play requires him to read a player on the defense and make a play in response to it.” Sluka was always a natural with that, the coach added, but the QB said “the closeness with my offense gives me all kinds of choices.”
With every ‘skill position’ player returning — Boll, Matt Mongelli, Jordan DeLucia, Bobby Filshie and Frank Roder — Kellenberg could be looking at another special season. “22-0 and another championship — that’s the goal,” Sluka said. “There is nothing that’s compared for me to go through a season with teammates you are this close to and finish with a championship. We all want that again.”
The other thing that is bound to unfold with this season is the blueprint for Sluka’s football future. Robert Sluka said that with Long Island being a lacrosse hotbed, players start getting recruited very early, as evidenced by the attention from Hopkins, Denver and the other powers. The hard-hitting two way-midfielder had 28 goals and 17 assists in 18 games and also lead the Firebirds in successful clears and ground balls.
Sluka, however, would prefer to throw footballs in college.
“Football is the hard road, the road fewer kids take on Long Island,” Robert Sluka said. And so the recruiting picture for Matt Sluka is still taking shape.
“He makes things happen on a football field,” Hanifan said. “He’s a real Division I quarterback. The interest is going to be there.”
“I haven’t experienced the sort of team bonding you get in football anywhere else and that’s what really makes it fun for me.”
Kellenberg’s Matt Sluka