Sam Thomas made big plays at middle linebacker all season for St. Frances, but he will be best remembered for one interception against Archbishop Spalding.
The Panthers were dominating the Cavaliers in the first half and when Thomas picked off quarterback Evan Fochtman with 1:10 left before halftime and ran it 43 yards for a touchdown, St. Frances led 18-0. No one knew how critical that play would be until the Cavaliers rallied in the second half and the Panthers held on for a 32-29 victory that would secure St. Frances' first Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference championship and its first No. 1 ranking — with Spalding fininshing at No. 2.
"He made, I thought, the biggest play in the biggest game of the year," Spalding coach Kyle Schmitt said, "with an interception on a run-pass option where our offensive line is blocking run and we're reading a defender. Sam wasn't the defender we were reading. We were reading the backside backer, who gave us a throw read and Sam took one step up and tracked Evan right away and made an incredible pick. It's the play that I thought was the difference in the football game."
Thomas, 6-feet, 215 pounds, led St. Frances (10-2) with 113 tackles as it went from last place in the A Conference to undefeated champions. A transfer from Eastern Christian, he was one of many newcomers who re-energized the Panthers with their only losses coming against Paramus Catholic (N.J.) and IMG Academy (Fla.), the nation's No. 1 team.
He had six interceptions, three forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries — almost all at key moments. In the A Conference finale, a 34-20 win over No. 6 Mount Saint Joseph, he had a momentum-changing strip and recovery that he took 55 yards to the 2-yard line, leading to a quick touchdown.
"Every game, Sam made that play and we said, 'We're going to win this game or 'We're in the spot where we want to be because of Sam,'" Panthers coach Henry Russell said. "He did that all year. He made plays when the team needed it the most."
At Eastern Christian, Thomas was a defensive back, but Russell said he pegged him for linebacker as soon as he saw him on the field last summer.
"Once he put the pads on, we said, 'Wow, this kid is a natural linebacker,'" Russell said. "He's got a great feel for the game, for finding holes in the running game and making plays in the passing game. All the film work he did and all the little things it takes to be a great player, Sam absolutely ate that stuff up. At the end, he was a captain, definitely the captain of our defense."
Thomas is considering scholarship offers from Rhode Island, Central Michigan and Eastern Michigan, among others. He will play in the Maryland Crab Bowl senior all-star game Dec. 18 at Bowie State.