Coaching to make a difference

Thursday, July 22, 2004

LaTanya E. Thomas has always told the little girls on her basketball teams not to start something that you can't finish.

Thomas is having trouble sticking to her word. She planned nine years ago to coach for 10 seasons, but now she doesn't seem to want it to end.

The Cape Girardeau resident has been coaching recreational girls youth basketball teams since she graduated from college in 1994 with a child development degree. She just can't get enough of the kids.

"I guess I have always been so outgoing and so into kids and so wanting to help, because I came from a huge family," she said. "All I've ever known is babysitting my little cousins and playing basketball and sports and school. I do what I do because I've known nothing else. I have such strong values from my family."

Thomas grew up as part of a large, athletic family in Pontiac, Mich. Two of her brothers received college baseball scholarships, and her half-sister Sommer McCauley, a Notre Dame graduate, was this year's Southeast Missourian Volleyball and Basketball Player of the Year.

Thomas excelled in sports throughout her childhood. As a 5-foot-5 1/2, three-sport athlete in high school, she led her basketball team in rebounds, averaged 14 points per game and shot 91 percent from the free-throw line. She was named the most consistent player on her team and was offered a college basketball scholarship, which she turned down to move to Cape to be with her father.

Now 33, she continues to shine not only as a coach, but also with her community involvement. Thomas still is active in local basketball, volleyball and softball leagues. She also is involved significantly in her church and serves in various community service programs -- including Habitat for Humanity, Neighborhood Watch and the Cape Girardeau Weed and Seed Steering Committee.

"I still got my skills," she said. "I'm one of the best-looking 33-year olds you know as far as being in shape. I do weird stuff like running in 5Ks and other sports. I'm the only black on the volleyball team.

"I've always been outgoing and involved," she added, "and always wanted to be helpful. My main concentration is on the kids and the community."

Thomas has had the opportunity to help kids and the community while coaching basketball. After her concern about the lack of athletic opportunities for local girls, Thomas was challenged to coach a fifth- and sixth-grade recreational basketball team. Four years ago she began coaching three different girls basketball teams -- each of which has finished in the top four of its league every season. Last winter, Thomas led two of her teams to championships.

"I said, 'Y'all need to have volleyball or basketball or something for little girls,' and a week later they found a place for us to play," she said. "All I had to do was get the ball and the girls, and that's how it started."

Thomas' squads practice at The Salvation Army, and she is relentlessly on the run to help raise money for her teams by starting candy sales, finding sponsors and hosting an annual shoot-a-thon.

"That's how we roll," she said. "We got a grant last year, but most of this is just coming up with things on my own. We try not to have any parents come out of their pockets. Generally, the kids that I serve are low-income kids that are deprived of any other out-of-school activities."

Thomas, whose policy is to not cut anybody from her teams, believes her girls look up to her as much more than a basketball coach.

"When they come, I just say, 'Can you run? OK, you're on the team.' I include everyone," she said. "I'm definitely a role model. You're not going to see me on the front page in handcuffs; you'll see me on TV supporting the police and fire departments."

Thomas said she has "girls time" at the beginning of every season to talk about personal issues, and she loves nothing more than seeing the girls succeed outside of the gym.

"I don't just teach basketball," she said. "They've always got somebody to come and talk to outside of their parents if they need to.

"My measure of success is seeing these girls be productive citizens in the community. I have hardly seen any of them strolling around with strollers and babies, and I've coached close to 200 girls. I'm so happy when I see 'em on the street and they're in school or they're graduated and moving on with their lives."

Thomas said when she started coaching in Cape that she would coach for 10 years, which would have her stepping down after two more seasons. But it looks like Thomas may have trouble keeping her word.

"It's love of the game and love of the kids that keeps making me do it," she said. "With some of these kids I got playing, they're killin'.

"Every year a new kid comes and I have to see them succeed and see how far they go," Thomas added. "When I don't see those kids coming through those gym doors anymore, I've done what I gotta do."

Mark Unterreiner is a sports writer for the Southeast Missourian, and his Spotlight feature appears every Thursday.

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