By Andrew Johnson
On Saturday, he will be ready to roll at the Division 2 individual district tournament at Lowell High School.
That’s the first leg of a journey that could finally lead to a berth in the individual state finals, a goal that has eluded Thomas for the first two years of an otherwise great prep career.
But before he can worry about individual goals, Thomas has a big role to play for the Rockets in Wednesday’s Division 2 team district tournament at Fruitport High School.
He’s a senior leader on a very good – but very young – Reeths-Puffer squad that has 10 freshmen on the roster.
The Rockets, who finished 28-6 in the regular season and won the O-K Black Conference, will face Fruitport in the district semifinals, with the winner advancing to face the winner of the Muskegon-Spring Lake semifinal match.
It could be a big night for Thomas. He could end up as part of a district championship team for the third year in a row.
And if the Rockets advance to the district finals, Thomas may get to wrestle twice. If he wins both of his matches, he will reach the 100-victory mark for his three-year varsity career.
“It’s a big deal,” said Thomas about reaching the 100-win milestone. “It’s big because I tore my ACL during my sophomore year, and I was on junior varsity as a freshman.”
Thomas was injured about three weeks into his sophomore season, and only returned with about a month remaining.
But he still totaled 34 wins, which is outstanding for an injury-shortened season.
Thomas took a step back during his junior season, winning only 25 matches. Part of the problem was that he wrestled at various weights in 2016-17, including 171, 189 and 215.
“I had a really bad year,” Thomas said. “I was cutting weight a lot and it was hard on me. I didn’t do it in a healthy enough way, and I didn’t listen to coach. I wasn’t eating healthy enough, and I was running too much.”
After struggling in his junior season, Thomas came back bigger and more prepared for his senior season.
Thomas, now weighing about 219, frequently wrestles in the heavyweight (285) division, which he believes gives him an advantage.
“I was just lifting like crazy,” Thomas said about his offseason weight gain. “My football coach was pushing me to gain weight because I was starting at offensive tackle all year.
“But being a taller guy, this is a more natural weight for me, and I guess my strategy is to utilize my conditioning and better shape, even though these guys are usually stronger and much bigger.”
That strategy has paid off for Thomas, who currently sports a record of 39-2. In January he won his third consecutive Greater Muskegon Athletic Association City Meet championship, this time at 285.
“It’s a big deal,” Thomas said about the rare accomplishment of winning three city titles. “I’ve had a lot of great teammates come before me, and for me to do something great for Reeths-Puffer means a lot.”
Last Saturday Thomas also won his third consecutive weight class championship at the O-K Black Conference tournament.
Reeths-Puffer Coach Matt Brink says Thomas has been successful due to his strong technique and awareness on the mat.
“He stays in good position,” said Brink about Thomas. “He’s aware and mat-savvy. I’d say he’s a finesse wrestler, but he also has strength that he knows when to turn on.
“He’s a leader and one our captains. He’s become a pretty good leader as a senior, and we lean on him a lot as a team when it comes to helping guys get ready.”
While Thomas has had plenty of regular-season success, he’s yet to break through in the state individual tournament.
He’s never placed in the top four in individual districts, to earn a spot in regionals. That means Saturday’s Division 2 individual district tournament is obviously circled on his calendar.
“That’s a good question,” Coach Brink said, when asked how a wrestler as good as Thomas could come up short for two straight years at the district level. “He’s had some tough draws against good wrestlers, and it’s just not been something he’s been able to do.
“So this year it’s a very big deal for him. I think he can do very well. He’s been doing a heck of a job.”
Thomas, who will wrestle at 215 in the individual tournament, is hopeful that this is the year he not only makes regionals, but qualifies for the state finals and places high.
“I think I have more than what it takes,” Thomas said. “I’ve got a great practice partner in (teammate) Hunter McCall, great coaching, and a lot of support.
“I worked hard this summer at getting better and better. I feel more confident than ever that I can place at state and go far.”
No matter what happens in the individual tournament, Thomas is mindful that his number one job is to lead the Reeths-Puffer underclassmen to success in the team tournament.
“It’s huge for me,” said Thomas about being a leader. “I’ve never had to be the leader. We had four great seniors who set records last year. They led the team for the last three or four years, and I was just a part of it.
“To be able to learn from those guys, and now help teach these freshmen when to be serious and help them progress, means the world to me. As long as I’ve helped them and showed them that hard work pays off, I’ve done my job.”
While Thomas won’t be part of the Rocket team after this season, he has a good feeling about the future of the program.
“Keep watching them over the next few years,” he said. “You’ll see them up there (competing for state honors) very soon.”