AZTEC — Matt Hegarty experienced quite the ride his last two years of high school, and the next chapter of his journey begins when he leaves Aztec for his new home in South Bend, Ind.

Hegarty, a 6-foot, 5-inch offensive lineman, leaves today for Notre Dame to begin summer workouts to get ready for the upcoming college football season. The four-star recruit had a firm verbal commitment to play for the Irish and made it official on National Signing Day last February 2. Now, after a spring of building muscle, he is saying farewell to Aztec for now and hello to the Golden Dome of Notre Dame.

"This opportunity is very exciting. At the same time, I have a lot of people here that are dear to me that I will miss and everything," Hegarty said. "A melancholy feeling set in when (Aztec Coach Brad) Hirsch started the spring workouts and the messages on the whiteboard didn't exactly pertain to me anymore. Things like that, it is just weird. I know kind of looking at the schedule it is not going to leave me a lot of time off to come home, so it is kind of a different feeling knowing that the next time I come around to Aztec I will be kind of a stranger.

"I'm going to miss it, but at the same time the Aztec program and the Brotherhood was great to me, and I enjoyed my time," Hegarty said. "It has been kind of hard for me, though. A lot of what I have been thinking is just about the things I will be missing. I spoke with a friend the other day and she was stressing to me to focus more on the things to be excited for, and I think that is really a part of it. There is a lot out there and I really just want to soak it all in and try to enjoy it. I am excited to see where it goes because it is all going to be kind of unknown for me."

Hegarty, who finished his senior year with a 3.8 grade point average, said it was hardto focus on enjoying his last few weeks of school and his short summer break with Division I football looming on the horizon. His focus has been on getting ready for the move and the

transition from his small town home of Aztec to the big stage of playing

football for Notre Dame where he will also major in business.

The U.S. Army All-American finished the high school season at 272 pounds, but is currently weighing in at 292 pounds after beginning Notre Dame's workout plan, though he has maintained his athletic build and speed.

"The training so far has been great. I took the spring off in terms of track and field and really just started focusing on getting my lifting in," he said. "The knee injury I got during basketball season was unfortunate, but I took care of that and any lingering stuff from football season. Hirsch has a really extensive strength program here that is really great, but it was kind of nice to start something new with the Notre Dame side of it.

"They weren't too big on making me pack on weight right away. The guy ahead of probably only has five or 10 pounds on me, and you don't have to be a real mauler in their spread offense. I think part of what always kind of made my game was my athleticism, and Notre Dame really keys on that with their kind of offense, especially the tackles with the ability to pull and claim space," Hegarty said.

Transitioning to college play may come easier for Hegarty thanks to playing in the spread offense his entire career at Aztec. He said he could sit and watch the Irish play on Saturdays and see some of the same things his team was doing on Friday nights.

Hegarty has plenty of competition ahead of him for playing time, however, and plans on redshirting for his freshman year.

"They have a pretty good rotation going on right now with lineman, so there won't be a real high demand for me to play right away, which I really appreciate getting the extra year of schooling," he said. "Coach Brian Kelly brings a lot of great concepts I am used to here, and this next year I really just want to adjust to the game's speed and tempo. It will be a lot easier for me, I think, staying in a spread instead of coming from a triple option or something."

Although Notre Dame hasn't had the same glory in recent years as it has in the past, Hegarty believes there is no better time to be coming into one of the more storied programs in NCAA history than now, and he is excited about the progress Kelly made with the team in his first year coaching the Irish last season.

Hegarty also sees some similarities between the Aztec and Notre Dame programs that reach deeper than just the spread offense. Both programs have tradition and a rich history, but neither has been able to get over the championship hump in recent history.

"I think it definitely draws a lot of similarities. A lot my friends I talked to after we unfortunately lost in the state title game to Artesia said, Alright, well you just have to make it up now and win a national championship at Notre Dame,'" Hegarty said. "I think that is kind of the mindset. The state title and the national title are kind of that golden goose out there that is hard to grab, but I think that would be a nice way to restore that for me for coming up short in high school."

Despite knowing where he was going to play for awhile, Hegarty still considers the experiences behind and in front of him very surreal.

"Even watching the spring game gave me that feeling. No matter how much I watch them or visited the school it still doesn't seem like it is a real feeling. I'm sure that will go away in a few weeks when I'm down in the grind doing it all," Hegarty said. "Growing up I always thought it would be cool to play in college and pro, but I was a realistic person and I really didn't know what the chances were of having any of those opportunities. It has been a fun ride looking back now, but it has been quick."

Now the realistic Hegarty can see the very real chance in front of him to keep improving and chance at playing on Sundays.

"There is a lot of expectation, but for me I am excited for whatever happens. It has been a lot of fun so far, but there are still a lot of things I want to accomplish," he said. "I have a poster in my room that is kind of NFL-related and I think about it every day. Just the steps of what it takes to get me there. It is absolutely a dream I have, and I am very glad to be in this situation. If I can end up at left tackle that will be great but I am willing to play anywhere as soon as I can, and I will keep working at it. Any more, any offensive line position in the NFL is making a lot of money, so I won't be choosy, but it would really be my dream to come out and make a statement and try to make a name in the league someday."

Hegarty will always have a name in Aztec, and he hopes to make his fans back home proud when he does get the chance to step on the field and play on NBC's national broadcasts.

"Aztec just has a really great small town feel, and everyone has been real supportive," Hegarty said. I will see people working out and they have had nothing but good wishes to pass on. Moving up to a big venue is going to be a change, but I just really love the community we have here in Aztec. It has just been really great."

John Livingston:

jlivingston@daily-times.com

twitter.com/jlivi2