Eagle Landing In Ireland
Thomas Wins Grant, Hope To Become D-1 Coach
HARRISONBURG — It’s a phrase Bridgewater College men’s basketball coach Don Burgess and his assistants have gotten used to hearing from representatives of rival programs on this summer’s recruiting trail:
‘‘Man, I’m sure glad that Ronnie Thomas is graduating.’’
At 6-foot-4, 165 pounds, Thomas – a four-year starter and three-time captain who finished his career at Bridgewater this past spring – wasn’t much to look at on a basketball court at first glance. But the unselfish, jack-of-all-trades still managed to leave his imprint in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference nonetheless.
“People always see him on the court with the competitive juices on, the eyebrows raised, the snarl on the face – yeah, he’s a competitor,” Burgess said of Thomas, who left BC having compiled 325 assists – the highest career total of any Eagles player since 1988. “But he always plays with his emotions on his sleeves and that’s one of the things that made Ronnie such a special kid.”
Thomas will take that energy and enthusiasm to a different facet of the game over the next two years when he leaves on Aug. 13 for the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland to continue his education with a Victory Scholarship, a program for American athletes funded by an Irish foundation that uses sports to help disadvantaged young people in both Ireland and Northern Ireland. Scholars are expected to mentor Irish youth while working on their personal goals.
Thomas will receive a fully funded education as he pursues a master’s degree in sports management. He’ll also get a chance to hone his coaching skills while instructing youngsters in Ireland’s version of the AAU circuit. Starting in September, Thomas said he also expects to play professional basketball – albeit unpaid, due to his scholarship – in the Irish Premier League’s second division.
“My dream has always been to become a Division I college basketball coach,” Thomas said. “… Erik Spoelstra is 39 years old [43, actually] and he started breaking down film for the Miami Heat at 23, and now he’s the head coach. So you got to start somewhere, and I’m looking for my start.”
Last year’s program sent 13 athletes, almost exclusively from Division 1 schools, to study at five Irish universities. Thomas – a self-described people person who said he graduated from BC with a 3.08 GPA and a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies along with a minor in education — is the first ODAC athlete to ever receive a Victory Scholarship, according to BC.
Burgess said he first became aware of the Victory Scholarship program last summer when Enda Byrt, a former coaching colleague at Coastal Carolina, visited BC’s campus with his wife at Burgess’ invitation. Somewhere along the way, Thomas’ name came up and Byrt – who coached Ireland’s senior men’s national team for eight years in the 1990s – suggested to Burgess that his player apply for consideration.
After one Skype interview and one phone interview — along with recommendations from Burgess and Byrt — Thomas had earned the chance to go abroad for the first time in his life.
It’s been an especially gratifying process for the 22-year-old BC graduate, whose parents, Regi and Michelle, come from working-class, blue-collar backgrounds. Regi is a railroad worker, while Michelle has made her living over the years doing various jobs at a hospital in Roanoke.
Ronnie Thomas said his parents missed only one of his games at Bridgewater during his senior season, and that was because they totaled their car in an accident on the way there. They walked away from the crash uninjured, he said.
“I saw how hard they worked, and it always pushes me to work hard and show how much that means to me,” Thomas said. “It helped with basketball, too. … I mean, they were great. So I saw dedication in different ways.”
Perhaps the best example of Thomas’ drive and dedication in an Eagles uniform came during his junior season when he broke the scaphoid bone between his right hand and forearm on the thumb side of his wrist. The injury requires four months in a cast to recover but after just four games missed, Thomas elected to ditch his cast and return for Bridgewater’s final three games of the season. He had notched a triple-double earlier in the season against Lynchburg.
“He still wasn’t 100 percent healthy, but he just wanted to come back and at least contribute what he could to the team,” Burgess said. “And he really couldn’t shoot with his right hand because of the injury, but he was still out there as one of our better defenders and just being a floor leader on the court.”
In his prep days at Patrick Henry High School in Roanoke, Thomas caught Burgess’ attention during a team camp at BC due to his versatility and tenacious defense. Competing under coach Jack Esworthy, Thomas guarded all five positions in high school in spite of his slim frame. Most comfortable at the offguard position, Thomas also spent some extensive time at power forward for Burgess due to injuries to other players in college.
This summer, Thomas is using his time to pursue another passion — teaching second graders as part of Smithland Elementary School’s summer education program in Harrisonburg.
“Kids, they absorb so much — they’re just like a sponge,” he said. “They just want to learn knew stuff. And it’s great to connect with ‘em and teach ‘em new things and just put a smile on their face every day.”