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River Hill grads Thomas, Ram reunite on B1G Stage

Wisconsin freshman Charlie Thomas, center, shares a laugh with his former River Hill coach Matt Graves and teammates Mike Heitzmann, left, and Ben Borucki, right, after helping the Badgers to a 70-57 victory over the University of Maryland.
Wisconsin freshman Charlie Thomas, center, shares a laugh with his former River Hill coach Matt Graves and teammates Mike Heitzmann, left, and Ben Borucki, right, after helping the Badgers to a 70-57 victory over the University of Maryland. (Photo by Brent Kennedy)

Charlie Thomas still remembers the first time he met Varun Ram.

It was 2011, Thomas was wrapping up middle school and Ram — a 2010 graduate of River Hill High School — had just finished a year playing prep at The Winchendon School in Massachusetts.

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Thomas was shooting on one end of the court at the Columbia Gym in Clarksville, while Ram was doing the same on the other. At the time, they were players at very different points in their basketball careers, but with one major thread in common — their journey was far from complete.

"I remember recognizing him and deciding to walk over to introduce myself … he was pretty big in terms of River Hill basketball. It was casual. We talked about some stuff, including whether I should go public or private (for high school)," said Thomas, who went on to become River Hill's all-time leader in points, rebounds and blocked shots.

"But it was cool, just talking basketball with him. Pretty crazy how long ago that was."

On Saturday night, in front of a sold out crowd at the Xfinity Center, the two crossed paths again. Only on this occasion, much like they did back in early January, the duo met as foes squaring off on opposite sides of a key Big Ten Conference match-up between the University of Maryland and University of Wisconsin men's basketball teams.

This time, it was the Badgers and Thomas — playing in his first collegiate game back home in Maryland — that got the better of things on the court.

The 6-foot-8 freshman forward played 12 minutes, scored two points and grabbed three rebounds to help Wisconsin knock off the No. 2 nationally-ranked Terps, 70-57. Ram played briefly in the second half as Maryland was trying to make a come back.

In the end for Thomas, it was the homecoming he always dreamed of.

"It was exactly what I wanted from tonight and the atmosphere was incredible," he said. "Maryland has great fans and that makes it fun, so I was really glad I got to get out there and contribute tonight to a huge win for our team."

River Hill boys basketball coach Matt Graves, who was in attendance in the upper deck, said the night was a dream come true for him as well. Watching two of the River Hill program's elite have a chance to compete on a national stage is something that doesn't happen every day.

"It's great to see where they've gotten to and the journey it took to get here," said Graves, who puts the duo among the top five to ever put on a River Hill basketball uniform. "These are two guys who have really worked their tails off and earned this opportunity. It's a special moment for me as a coach because I got to watch them grow up all the way back from when they were high school freshman."

The road for both Ram and Thomas to their current positions has been a long and winding one.

Ram spent the majority of his first two years of high school on the Hawks' JV squad, eventually working his way to becoming a first-team all-county guard as a senior. With no offers to play college basketball immediately after graduating, he decided to go the prep school route and that led to an opportunity to play at Division III Trinity College during the 2011-12 campaign.

It was after that season that he decided to transfer to the University of Maryland, where he worked his way to the point where he could walk on to the basketball team. After sitting out a year due to NCAA transfer rules, he was put on scholarship for the 2013-14 season and began seeing time off the bench.

Known as a defensive specialist, Ram has seen his role and minutes fluctuate a tremendous amount over the course of the last three years. This season — where he went from never playing more than five minutes in the team's first 14 games to now playing at least five in six of the last 12, has been as much of a rollercoaster as any of them.

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But through it all Ram says he's learned to enjoy the ride.

"The way I look at it, I was just happy to make it onto a Division I program, so the scholarship, the minutes … they are just icing on the cake," Ram said. "It's been great, a fantastic experience so far. And I've quickly gotten used to the up-and-down swing in my role. My job is to be ready to contribute and try to make an impact on the game whether I'm in there for a couple minutes or just one possession."

Thomas, who ultimately decided to forgo private school and enter River Hill as a freshman in 2011, was a varsity starter from Day 1 with the Hawks. But while he enjoyed relative personal success in the early going, River Hill won just 4 games his first year.

He quickly blossomed into the leader the Hawks needed to turn the program around, however, helping achieve three consecutive winning seasons and a berth in the 3A East region title game as a senior. He finished his career with 1,717 points, earning Howard County Player of the Year honors in his final year with the team.

Along the way, he also caught the eye of high-major Division I college coaches and ended up signing with the Badgers last fall, prior to his senior high school season.

This year, coming off the bench, he's averaging 2.9 points and 2.2 rebounds a game for Wisconsin. He too has seen his minutes fluctuate over the course of the season, but overall he has been a contributor in the frontcourt ever since opening night in November.

Thomas says there has definitely been an adjustment period, but also credits his time at River Hill and the system put in place by Graves as one of several factors that have helped him pick things up quicker than he might have otherwise.

"(Coach Graves), he really emphasized fundamentals and that's a big part of what we do here," Thomas said. "There are a lot of familiar things, they are just at a much higher level now. But I'm definitely grateful to have had that base to build on."

Graves was among those in the friends and family area to greet both Thomas and Ram following the game Saturday. He exchanged handshakes and words with both of his former players, catching up on old times.

Thomas and Ram didn't get a chance to touch base afterward, but the duo does still keep in touch. They've been known to text back and forth on occasion when one or the other has a big game.

As Ram puts it, there is an unspoken Howard County basketball "fraternity" — one that also includes guys like fellow River Hill grad Tommy Brenton playing in Japan or Oakland Mills grad Greg Whittington playing in the NBA D League — that is forever linked.

"There's definitely an unspoken camaraderie there. You want to see all those guys that you either played with or played against do well," Ram said. "I know I definitely pull for all those guys. Charlie, especially, because he went through a very similar high school experience to the one I did.

"Best case scenario on a night like tonight, Charlie has a great game and we win. Unfortunately we missed out on the second half of that tonight."

While Thomas says he was certainly thrilled to get on the winning end of this decision, he was also quick to point out that the real winner at the end of the day is Howard County boys basketball.

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"We are out here representing HoCo on college basketball's biggest stage and that's huge," Thomas said. "That's what it's all about … River Hill was in the building tonight."

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