MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

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June 24, 2014

Home with a cause: Tahlequah grad plays role of father, forward for Bacone

Growing pains.

Tahlequah High grad Matt Qualls has had a few in his life, and not just due to a 6-foot, 7-inch frame.

The four-time All-Phoenix standout  finished his Tiger career as MVP in 2009 after leading his team to the Class 5A semifinals, averaging 23.1 points, 13 rebounds, two assists, four steals and three blocked shots.

He signed with Central Oklahoma in April of that year, then embarked on what he looks back on as a “roller coaster” of a ride in college life that dropped him off on the campus of Bacone College this past season.

“I always knew what I could do, so I wasn’t worried about where I ended up playing at,” he said.

It just took him a while to make a final landing.

At UCO, he was struck with multiple cases of strep throat within a couple months prior to the season and wound up having an emergency tonsillectomy. He received a redshirt two weeks prior to the start of the season.

“That was pretty brutal,” he said. “I couldn’t eat after getting them out and wound up losing about 20 pounds in all. Then I just got to the point where I didn’t feel right being there and left at the end of the semester.”

He moved to Coffeyville (Kan.) to enroll and work out.

“I found out about their out-of-state rule where they could only have five. They were there so I was basically competing for a spot. But they suggested that I redshirt and I didn’t like that at all.”

Then it was on to Weatherford (Texas) Junior College where things worked out. He was Newcomer of the Year in that conference averaging 17 points and 13 rebounds. Next on his journey was Rogers State, where some misunderstanding regarding Rogers’ transfer to NCAA Division II and a probationary period before becoming eligible for the postseason had him looking elsewhere.

“I took a year off and trained on my own,” Qualls said.

Part of what drew him to Rogers State was the need to take care of his fatherly duties. Qualls became a dad his senior season at Tahlequah. He and the mother never married but have worked together in joint custody in raising Natalie, who turned 6 last weekend.

Bacone came calling. It was where his father, Leroy Qualls — now the Sequoyah superintendent who coached his son at Tahlequah — played.

Matt Qualls would be near his daughter.

“It’s been a good fit,” he said. “They knew how I played and had a sense of my game having been from the area and all.”

Because of the moving around, he had three semesters of eligibility left. He began his junior season Jan. 9 with three straight double-figure games off the bench. He was elevated to a starting role and finished the year averaging 18.6 points and 8.7 rebounds.

Qualls had a season-high 33 points against Our Lady of the Lake on Feb. 25. He had just two games where he didn’t score at least 10 points and finished with seven double-doubles.

“His perimeter game is definitely better than it was in high school but his bread and butter is still in the paint,” said Bacone coach Allan Foster. “His ability to score there is something at our level you don’t see. You’ll get 6-8 kids who are long and athletic but not skilled. His skill is what makes him a good player at our level and from the first week he was able to come in and establish himself in that manner.”

Foster also notices the maturity in Qualls.

“From day one he’s shown a different level there you don’t typically get from kids coming out of high school and junior college,” Foster said. “Playing near family and being close to his daughter were factors that rated high with him. I think he also came to the realization he’s got a limited amount of college basketball to play and he wants to enjoy it."

Indeed, Qualls is settled, and focused.

“I remember having offers to play in California and Florida, nice places,” he said. “Those were hard to give up on but I’ve had to do a gut check and a whole lot of growing up,” he said. “I mean I was a level-headed kid from the start. I’d go to the gym on Friday and Saturday instead of out but having Natalie makes me appreciative of everything I do.

“Some of my friends make decisions regarding their time I wouldn’t do. Sometimes I’ll have to get up at 5 a.m. to get in a workout if I know I’m going to be with Natalie the rest of the day. You realize how precious hours are in a day having to organize your life around responsibilities.”

Qualls is majoring in education and hopes to coach one day — yet still holds out the possibility of an opportunity to play basketball professionally overseas.

That’s not exactly near Natalie, but...

“Then it becomes a chance to really provide for her,” he said. “It may take me away for a time but it’s not year-round.

“And knowing it’s going to help her, I can handle that.”

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