Howard County Times boys basketball reporter Brent Kennedy discusses the historic 2014-15 season, which culminated with two state championship teams. (Jon Sham/Baltimore Sun Media Group video)
River Hill's Charlie Thomas IV, standing 6-foot-7 and weighing in at 230 pounds, has always been an imposing presence on the basketball court. Even as a freshman on varsity four years ago, he had the build of a guy that demanded attention.
But, with his friendly personality and willingness to play from the perimeter his first three years of high school, Thomas was often referred to as a "gentle giant."
This winter, however, he made sure to change all that.
Thomas, who signed his National Letter of Intent before the season to play basketball collegiately for a top-10 nationally-ranked program at the University of Wisconsin, developed a "mean streak" as a senior on the way to averaging 23.2 points and 11.2 rebounds a game. His efforts helped lead River Hill to a 19-6 record, an appearance in the 3A East region finals for the first time since 2009, and have now earned him the distinction of being the Howard County Times/Columbia Flier boys basketball Player of the Year.
"There was definitely a mentality switch for me this year, where I was playing with a chip on my shoulder every single time I stepped on the floor," Thomas said. "After losing in the first round of the playoffs my first three years, then getting off to a rough start this year, I realized I had to start playing angry. I couldn't be a nice guy on the court anymore."
River Hill coach Matt Graves, whose Hawks team started the year 1-4, says he noticed the changes right before winter break following a team meeting heading into a non-county game against Cardozo.
"I think Charlie reached a point there where he realized this was the last year in high school for him and there was no next year. You saw it in his eyes, he knew it was time for him to become a man out there," Graves said. "He set the tone in the Cardozo game and then he never really slowed down after that. His scoring, his vocal leadership … everything went to an entirely different level."
Following the win against Cardozo that snapped the team's losing skid, Thomas came out two days later and set a school record with a 46-point effort in a victory over Hammond. Over the final two-and-a-half months of the season, River Hill went on to win 18 of its last 20 games and Thomas scored 30 or more points on seven different occasions.
Thomas, who still showcased his range with 10 made threes this winter, made a concerted effort to focus on taking the ball to the basket early and often.
"It wasn't that I was a worse 3-point shooter, as much as it was me knowing where my easy points were going to come from," Thomas said. "Going to the basket, there aren't many people that are able to guard me around here, so I was either going to score or get fouled. And, when they double- or triple-teamed me, that just got easy looks for my teammates."
Graves, who points out that Thomas posted a career-high 60.5 field goal percentage this season, says his big man showcased tremendous maturity.
"We never really had to talk about it that much. Charlie realized what was best for him and what was best for the team," Graves said. "For a player of his caliber to buy into our system the way he did, doing everything he did to make those around him better, I can't say enough about what that meant."
For Thomas, who graduates as River Hill's all-time leader in career points (1,717), rebounds (887) and blocked shots (160), there were signs of something special before he even entered high school.
His father, Charles Thomas III — who had played collegiately himself at Wake Forest and New Mexico — had introduced him to the game at a young age. Thomas learned the game from his dad and, even though there were some tough times, established a tremendous work ethic by following his lead as well.
"I may not have always said it at the time, but looking back I love my dad for pushing me so much. I don't think I get here without him," Thomas said. "Ever since I was little, he's always been there … pulling me to the side, telling me what to work on and what I need to do. He's been my most important teacher."
By the time he was set to enter high school, Thomas already showcased a talent level that convinced Graves he was ready to play on the varsity fall league team prior to his freshman season.
Sure enough, while still fairly raw, Thomas burst onto the scene for the Hawks with averages of 12.8 points and 7.0 rebounds that first year.
Then, following an offseason playing with the elite travel squad DC Premier (formerly DC Assault), he made the leap to averages of 17.0 points and 8.5 rebounds as a sophomore. Filling into his body even more as a junior, those numbers pushed all the way up to 20.2 points and 11.3 rebounds each time out.
But for all the gaudy stats he was already putting up, Thomas says the real breakthrough didn't come until this past summer while attending camps and spending time on the travel circuit.
"I went to the Reebok camp and I was holding my own against some pretty high-level Division I recruits and that gave me a ton of confidence," he said. "I feel like I always knew in the back of my mind that I was capable of playing at that level, but that's when it actually hit me for real."
The recruiting process really picked up as the summer progressed and kept building momentum into the fall. Ultimately, Wisconsin turned out to be exactly what Thomas was looking for in terms of academics and basketball.
"It all just came together and I can't really explain just how amazing it feels to be going to a prestigious program like Wisconsin," says Thomas in regards to a Badgers' program that made it to the NCAA Tournament Final Four for the second straight season this winter. "I'm really looking forward to going up there and developing as a player and a person."
With his college decision out of the way, Thomas was able to focus on just playing basketball this winter. His final averages for points and rebounds both placed him tops among Howard County public school players.
As for the season itself, Thomas says he has no regrets. Although the team fell short of its ultimate goal — losing in the region title game on a buzzer beater against Centennial — Thomas says he's made memories that will stick with him forever.
"When I look back on it, we had a hell of a team and made a hell of a run," Thomas said. "It came down to one shot and we were on the wrong end of it, but I'm just glad I got to play with all these guys."
And in terms of what's ahead at the next level, Graves says the sky is the limit.
"Honestly, while there is a ton of work ahead, the great thing about Charlie is that I think he has a ceiling that he hasn't even come close to reaching yet," Graves said. "Once he gets to Wisconsin and they continue helping him develop all those tools that he has, I truly believe he's going to reach heights that maybe even he doesn't realize yet."
Named to the all-county first team are:
Matt Frierson, Chapelgate. To say that the Yellowjackets' senior guard is a 3-point shooting extraordinaire would be an understatement. On his way to averaging an area-best 23.6 points a night, Frierson knocked down a county-record 137 threes this season. That comes out to an average of nearly five made shots from beyond the arc a night.
For his three-year varsity career, he finishes with 283 made 3-pointers.
"He just shoots all day, that's what he does. Literally hundreds, some days thousands, of shots," Chapelgate coach Frick Frierson said. "It's neat when you get rewarded for that work because that's not how life always is when it comes to sports. But he worked on his shot over the years and now he's getting to enjoy the fruits of his labor."
Among his top individual performances this season were 41-point efforts against Annapolis Area Christian and Heritage Academy. In both contests, Frierson tied a season high by hitting eight threes. He also eclipsed 1,000 career points this winter.
But he wasn't only a scorer for Chapelgate. Frierson also posted averages of 3.9 assists and 2.2 steals a game, both of which ranked him among the top 10 county players in those categories.
He will play collegiately at the Citadel.
Seth Henry, Reservoir. A steady contributor for the Gators since his sophomore season, Henry first announced himself as a prime-time player in the state semifinals during the 2013 playoffs when he grabbed a team-high 12 rebounds. Over the last two years, he's built on that to the point where he now graduates as one of the program's all-time greats.
This season, as Reservoir's lone returning starter from a season ago, he averaged 17.4 points and 10.8 rebounds a game while leading the way to a 12-7 county record. He scored in double figures in every game but one.
"I always think back to that game against Potomac down in College Park as the moment when he really showed what he could do and, every day since he's been with me, he's worked as hard as anyone to constantly improve," Reservoir coach Mike Coughlan said. "I can't remember having a harder worker than him in all my years … never complained, never a bad attitude. He earned everything he got."
Henry, standing 6-foot-2, often gave up size to the forwards he was playing against. But he made up the difference with hustle, energy and great positioning. He finished the year with 14 double-doubles. Among his biggest games was a 20-point and 14-rebound effort in a regular-season victory over Atholton.
"The rebounding was something that I thought was just a natural thing for him," Coughlan said. "Someone growing up had stuck him in the post, so he had that mental toughness to battle in there when he's probably built more like a guard. So as he's grown and also developed those other parts of his game, he's become a true all-around threat."
Daniel Kiely, Oakland Mills. The starting point guard for the Scorpions this winter, Kiely was the floor general every step of the way en route to the 2A state championship. He handled pressure, got the team into its offense and made things go for the cast of talented players around him.
An adept scorer in his own right, Kiely finished with an average of 11.9 points a game. But, in terms of making Oakland Mills be as successful as it could be this year, Kiely was often unselfish and let the spotlight shine on others.
"Daniel sacrificed more than anyone else for the good of the team. He has an unbelievable ability to get to the rim and score, but at the end of the day he gave up his points so that other guys could get going," Oakland Mills coach Jon Browne said. "He was all about wins and he embraced that role of being the point guard."
And as the man with the ball in his hands, he finished with an average of 5.1 assists a game, more than any other county public school player. In two playoff games — against St. Charles and Patuxent — he tied his season high with 10 assists.
"He has vision unlike any other kid I've ever coached. He feels the game very well and he has an uncanny ability to find his teammates," Browne said. "But I tell you what, the two things I was impressed with the most were his ability to rebound and play defense. He improved those two areas of his game tremendously.
Kiely finished with an average of 5.1 rebounds and 1.8 steals a game.
Nick Oates, Glenelg. A four-year starter on the varsity level that had been a second-team all-county selection the last two years, Oates took his game to an entirely different level this winter. Still showcasing himself as one of the best facilitators in the county with his 4.0 assists a game, he also became one of the area's leading scorers.
With his adept outside shot that allowed him to hit 51 threes this season, to go along with an ability to get to the rim, the Gladiators' guard ranked fifth in the county at 17.9 points a game.
"I can't speak enough to the type of young man he has become over the last year or so. He truly put his heart and soul into becoming a better basketball player and leading the Glenelg basketball brand to what it is now," said Glenelg coach Jansen McMillan. "He's well respected, he cares about his teammates and he cared about leaving his legacy as one of the best to come through here as a player and as a person."
Oates, who scored his 1,000th career point late in the season, scored a season-high 30 points on two occasions — against Oakland Mills and Hammond. He also made an impressive 75 percent of his foul shots (69-91). Throw in becoming a better defender, which led to the third highest average steals in the county (2.5), and Oates was the complete package.
"He really took pride in every aspect of his game and never settled," McMillan said. "He's constantly working to get better and that's going to really serve him well at the next level.
Oates will play collegiately at St. Mary's College of Maryland.
Will Robinson Jr., Oakland Mills. A transfer into the Scorpions' program from St. Frances, Robinson turned out to be the missing piece of the puzzle for a program that made a run to its first state championship since 1990. On the season, he averaged 21.1 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.1 blocks a game — all of which put him among the top eight players in the county.
Even more impressive was the consistency. He scored in double figures in every game but one, and he also thrived in the biggest games. During the playoffs, Robinson scored at least 15 points every time out. And, in the state championship game against Patterson, he put together one of his best performances of the entire season with 26 points and 11 rebounds.
"That kid is a winner. Period. He excels under pressure, welcomes it and wants the ball … that's who he is," Oakland Mills coach Jon Browne said. "He's not real flashy, doesn't talk a lot. But when the chips are down, he finishes."
Just as important as the stats, though, was Robinson's presence as a leader on a team that had fallen in the regional finals four of the last five years. He was a steadying presence early, when teammate Mamadou Ndiaye was out with an injury, and again late, when the team had double-digit leads disappear in the second half of each of its final three playoff games.
"He had a toughness to him, a mental toughness. He was very cool even when things were going awry and he was the one that often got the other guys settled down," Browne said. "You could always count on Will to be calm and collected."
Chad Strothers, Centennial. There were few county players that were more improved all-around than Strothers was this winter, and that emergence was a major reason why the Eagles were able to make a run to capture the first state championship in program history. As the lead guard for Centennial, and one-third of the team's big three that also included Isaiah White and Tom Brown, Strothers nearly doubled his scoring production from his junior season from 7 points a game up to 13.3. He also significantly boosted his assists average to 3.1 a game.
On top of that, Strothers built on his reputation for being a clutch player, producing big points in big moments. After never finishing as the team's leading scorer even once last winter, Strothers set the pace in points for the Eagles on eight different occasions as a senior.
"Chad has really developed into a more complete player each year, and that's a testament to him and his work," Centennial coach Chad Hollwedel said. "But in terms of being clutch, he's always kind of had that knack to make it when it counts going all the way back to when we brought him up as a sophomore."
Strothers had a full offensive arsenal at his disposal. He hit 17 threes, could knock down the mid-range jumper and also get himself to the rim. But his most dangerous weapon was his floater.
"He built tremendous confidence in that shot right from the start of the season and it was a tremendous weapon for him," Hollwedel said. "He has tremendous touch and he knew how to get himself into spots on the floor where he could use all of his skills to his advantage."
His stretch of six straight points to open the fourth quarter of the state championship game against Westlake was among the season highlights for the senior guard.
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Isaiah White, Centennial. A returning second-team all-county player from a season ago, White wasted absolutely no time showcasing himself as one of the county's best during the opening two weeks this winter. He scored 14 or more points in each of the first five games, including 26 against Glen Burnie and 27 in an overtime win against Howard. For an Eagles team that at the time was still establishing an identity, White was the one that made sure things started on a positive note.
"Coming out of the gate with those high-scoring games, I thought Isaiah definitely set the tone," Centennial coach Chad Hollwedel said. "He exploded to start the season offensively and then, as we got rolling, he showcased himself as truly a complete player in all aspects."
By season's end, White finished as the leading scorer (17.2 points a game) for the state-champion Eagles. He was particularly big down the stretch, scoring 22 points in the regional championship victory over River Hill, 19 in the state semifinals against CM Wright, and 18 in the state championship against Westlake.
But just as important, as Hollwedel mentions, were the other things he did on the court. He grabbed 6.4 rebounds a game, dished out 2.7 assists each time out and established himself as one of the county's best defenders on top of it.
His 59 blocks were not only the most in the county, but were 20 more than the next closest individual.
"I was incredibly impressed with how he developed as a team-defensive player," Hollwedel said. "He has always been great on the ball, but for him to get over two blocks a game and do most of it from help … that speaks to his tremendous growth."