No doubting Thomas

Senior parlays D-I soccer skills into basketball success

The average high school soccer player will run 4 or 5 miles in a given match.

To equal that distance at her other job, Heritage senior Morgan Thomas would have to sprint from one end of the school’s gym floor to the other, then back again, 147 times.

That kind of mileage can do wonders for your footwork.

If you’re fast enough, it can also get you a Division I scholarship.

Thomas will sign a National Letter of Intent to play college soccer at East Tennessee State University on National Signing Day early next month. That it’s soccer and not basketball that will pay for his point guard’s college education is really no surprise, Lady Mountaineer coach Rick Howard said.

“She’s one of the best soccer players anywhere around here,” he said.

An elite club team player, Thomas has never played soccer at the high school. She got her start with a Knoxville-area team at age 5 - before Heritage even had a girls’ soccer team - and simply stayed put.

By high school, Thomas had become a talented, playmaking forward on the club scene, one who could really accelerate. She was also becoming devilishly fast on the basketball court, a fact not lost on Howard.

“I saw how quick she was. I thought I could make a player out of her,” he said.

Soccer was her first love, Thomas said. During her freshman season at Heritage, she shared the backcourt on the hardwood with former Lady Mountaineer Cait McMahan at times. That season convinced her there was room for basketball, too, Thomas said.

“Playing with Cait made me realize how much fun it could be,” she said.

Soccer helped in a big way in improving her court sense for hoops, Thomas said.

“I think playing soccer has really helped my defense in basketball,” she said. “In soccer, you have to move your feet.”

As a byproduct, the Lady Mountaineer basketball team (18-5, 7-3) got a point guard who was great in traffic, quick off the dribble and almost Jedi-like with her passing.

“She handles the ball well,” Howard said. “She’s so quick, she does a great job of breaking down pressure.”

Thomas, averaging 7.2 points and 3.2 assists per game, meshes with shooters Lauren Burnett and Kelly Brackett and freshman center Miranda Maples to give Heritage a balanced, versatile attack.

Burnett paces the district with a 15.8 points per game scoring average, with Brackett pumping in 10.7 points. Maples, a tall, athletic 6-footer, is adding eight points and 5.9 rebounds an outing around the basket.

Thomas provides the stitching, adding 2.4 steals per game on the defensive end. Off the drive on offense, there are few better.

“If they stop her, she’s got those kickouts (to Burnett and Brackett),” Howard said. “She (Thomas) can break anybody down. Her first step is as quick as anybody around.”

A showdown with fellow District 4AAA power Farragut looms for Heritage on Tuesday. The Lady Mountaineers and Lady Admirals are locked in a tie for second in the league standings. The winner likely secures a region berth, regardless of what happens in district tournament play.

Complicating things, Heritage must first visit a surging Lenoir City team on Friday.

“We’ve just got to step up and rebound,” Thomas said. “If we can rebound, it should be there for us.”

Bearden remains out front in 4AAA, an unbeaten 9-0 in district play. Paced by likely player of the year center Mary Hirst and shooter Rikki Sanders, the Lady Bulldogs aren’t going to be easy to catch down the stretch.

“They’ve got a tough, athletic team,” Howard said. “It’s not just the big girl.”

Heritage, Farragut and Maryville’s Lady Rebels each still have a shot at that all important second district seed and its automatic region berth. The third seed and below face a one-and-done scenario with a loss in their respective district openers.

“Having to play a play-in game in our district is tough,” Howard said.

Thomas said she has at times wondered what it would have been like to play for the Lady Mountaineer soccer team. With high school girls soccer played in the fall, the club game in the spring, it’s at least possible.

It just wouldn’t be right, Thomas said.

“Sometimes I wish I could (play for the high school),” she said. “but I wanted to give my focus to basketball and give it my best.”

The results speak for themselves.

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