Premier Role At Towson

January 13, 1995|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,Sun Staff Writer

Nine minutes remained in the first half of a recent game, when Stevie Thomas got a message that reminded him how different this season promises to be.

Thomas had just committed his second personal foul, earning him a seat on the Towson State bench. In the old days, Thomas would have resigned himself to being a spectator until the second half.

But this is a new year for Thomas, who looks like a different player for the Tigers. Towson State coach Terry Truax, needing his bulk and quickness to offset a Radford team that was gaining momentum, didn't hesitate to reinsert Thomas into the lineup.

"Basketball is an exciting game," said Thomas, a 6-foot-7, 230-pound junior power forward from Walbrook High School. "At the same time, it's more complex than people think. You go through so many mental dilemmas.

"As a freshman and a sophomore, it was about getting playing time and learning plays. Some days, I wasn't into it. I'd come off the bench, and as soon as I made a mistake, I was out of there. I knew I couldn't make a mistake."

That's not the case anymore. On a team that lost last year's front court to graduation and is playing without star redshirt senior guard Scooter Alexander this year, Thomas has become a major piece in Towson State's puzzle.

Knowing that his stock had risen in Truax's eyes, Thomas reported to practice in October in the best shape of his collegiate life. After spending the summer working on his game -- when he wasn't earning spending money by painting houses -- Thomas showed up 15 pounds lighter than last year. His feet were quicker. He ran the floor better. He looked like a starter.

As the Tigers (5-5) head into their Big South schedule, Thomas is a reserve no more. Instead, he is a veteran on a team that suddenly is looking to him for leadership. And Thomas, who has started all 10 games, is making the most of his chance.

Ten games into the season, he leads Towson State in rebounding (7.5) and blocked shots (1.8), and is second in scoring (11.6) and minutes (30.4), trailing only junior guard Ralph Blalock in each category. He also has made 72.7 percent of his free throws.

"I always felt like he had the strength to be a dynamite player fous on the block and in the paint," Truax said. "He's a power forward who can shoot, and he's a solid perimeter defender, maybe better out there than in the post. He made the commitment to conditioning last year, and showed us great work ethic. I'm proud of his achievements on the court, but especially in the classroom. He's a sweetheart of a kid."

The youngest -- and biggest -- of seven children, Thomas grew up in West Baltimore.

"I encountered gang situations as early as middle school, and I've been around gunshots three or four times," said Thomas. "There are a lot of distractions growing up in the city. You know it [violence] is there. You just pray that it doesn't happen to you."

Thomas was already 6-6 when he started playing basketball at Walbrook, where future Towson State star guard Devin Boyd already was making his mark. Tigers assistant coach Jim Meil couldn't help but notice Thomas while he was recruiting Boyd.

Thomas enjoyed an All-Metro finish to a fine career under coach Gus Herrington. As a senior center, he averaged 15.7 points and 11.2 rebounds. Maryland, Clemson and Towson State pursued him, but Thomas decided not to sign as a senior.

After graduating, he went to New Hampton Prep School in New Hampshire for a year. Meanwhile, the Tigers kept in touch. When they offered Thomas a scholarship, he jumped at the chance.

"A lot of schools were looking at him. We just stayed with him the longest," Meil said. "He's really achieved a lot in his life. He is a cornerstone of what we want to do. But Stevie is a person who is getting the most out of college experience in all areas."

Indeed, Thomas is excited about what he might accomplish on the court, but even more so about being on schedule to graduate in the spring of 1996 with a degree in sports communication.

"I've seen enough players have to come back to school [after playing] to get their degree," Thomas said. "I made up my mind that I'm not going to let that happen. I can't cheat myself."

On the court, he would love to reverse the Tigers' reputation of being strong in the backcourt, soft down low. In recent years, guards like Boyd, Kurk Lee, Terrance Jacobs, and now Alexander and Blalock have reinforced that impression.

"In the past, people have said we have a weak front line," Thomas said. "This year, I wanted to establish early that they could rely on me. I'm starting to develop an offensive game. I have an opportunity, and I want to continue taking advantage of it. I just want to maximize my ability on the court. I want to be able to say that I improved every year."

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