Southeast Missourian baseball player of the year: Oak Ridge senior Brett Thomas dominated the opposition on the mound

Sunday, July 10, 2011
Brett Thomas is the 2011 All-Missourian Baseball Player of the Year. (Kristin Eberts)

There is a pine tree that stands in front of Brett Thomas' Oak Ridge home, not far from his idyllic tree-lined gravel driveway. He doesn't really see the beauty. He's the one who has to weed eat around the trees. l The pine tree was planted the same week he was born, and standing by it today he'll tell the story of how he saved it by tying a chain around it and using a truck to straighten it back out when a wind storm nearly turned it over. l Beside that tree, which now towers over the 6-foot-2 Thomas, is where his baseball career got off to an unassuming start.

"We used to spend hours out there," Thomas said about he and his father, Dave. "He had a glove and a bat, and I'd stand out by this huge pine tree in our front yard. And he would just hit fly balls to me for hours and hours, and then at the end -- we'd do it for like two hours -- then at the end he'd hit it really far, so I'd have to be making diving plays and stuff."

The father-son time turned out to have some unexpected benefits.

"As he got older, then he would move back," explained Dave Thomas, saying he often would hit his son hundreds of pop-ups in an evening. "I really think that that's why his arm did get reasonably strong at a young age because that was long toss. We didn't even realize it. I didn't even know it.

"It was fun for us. It was fun for me, and he loved it. I wasn't doing it to try to turn him into a ballplayer."

Brett Thomas plays catch with his father, Dave, outside their home in Oak Ridge, Mo. The father and son spent countless hours in the front yard playing baseball. (Kristin Eberts)

Thomas eventually would leave his hometown each summer to find a level of competition that could make him better and exposure that could provide opportunities like the day he drove to the University of Missouri for a showcase, pitched four sublime innings and left town with his first and only college scholarship offer the next day.

But he came back to his small-town school each year to dominate opponents on the mound and at the plate, which is why he is the Southeast Missourian baseball player of the year for a second consecutive season.

"Some people they may switch schools, move schools, do whatever to try to get themselves better, but someone told me, 'Hey, if you're good enough, you're going to get seen no matter what,'" Thomas said. "I'm a hometown kid. Oak Ridge is always going to be there for me."

The thing about his trip to Mizzou is that it might not even have been the most important recruitment of his career.

When he was 9 years old, Jerry Kratochvil and Steve Williams, Central's baseball coach, made a visit to his house, sat down with him and his parents and eventually invited him to join the Cape Tigers, a traveling team they coached.

Brett Thomas plays catch with his father, Dave, outside their home in Oak Ridge, Mo., on Tuesday, July 5, 2011. (Kristin Eberts)

"We kind of explained what we do," Williams said. "Jerry and I's philosophy with the young kids and how we approached it and how we worked on not just winning games, especially, but really developing kids, developing players."

That conversation, according to Dave Thomas, "opened up all the opportunities he needed. That put him in the position to be seen and that also gave him the competition to get better. And that was all by luck."

Thomas and his family traveled around the Midwest and as far as Cooperstown, N.Y., playing with the Tigers throughout the summer for the next five years. Then when the winter came or he had a weekend off from baseball, his game switched to basketball and traveling AAU teams.

"I must not have had a life as a kid," Thomas said with his typical exaggeration and deadpanned humor. "I was just like a machine. I was like those Chinese gymnastics girls that get shipped off to some training camp and don't see their parents for 14 years. That was me."

In reality, Dave and his mother Holly almost always were in the stands.

Brett Thomas is the 2011 Southeast Missourian baseball player of the year. (Kristin Eberts)

"We never looked at it as a chore," Dave Thomas said. "For us it was just fun. We socialized with the parents and made a lot of good friends. I wouldn't trade it for nothing. You can't look at it like, 'Gosh, we've got to go, we've got to take him to some tournament this weekend.' For us it was fun. We enjoyed it."

Driving force

His competitiveness is his trademark. Most people like to win, but he's one of those people who is disgusted by the thought of losing.

"I know kids that it drives me crazy that they're not more competitive than they are," Thomas said. "They just go with the flow. If they lose, yeah, they're mad, but they'll live to see another day. I think I was just born like that. I always wanted to win, even playing Monopoly against my sister. I still want to win."

Thomas played varsity basketball and started on the baseball team during all four years of high school. He also ran cross country his freshman and sophomore years.

He faced a challenge from a new member of the team for the seventh spot in the varsity lineup during his sophomore season. This was significant because only the top seven runners get to run at the state meet.

"The point of running cross country is to go to state, at least that's my opinion," Thomas said. "Just because that's the only fun thing to do.

"You get to get out of a day of school, spend the night in a hotel. Then once you have to run, that sucks."

The battle for the final spot came down to the conference race at Cape County Park, where he and teammate Zach Huffman went head-to-head in the JV race.

"I was idiot, and I tried to beat him at the beginning of the race and I was way ahead of him, doing good," Thomas said. "Then I just got worn down so fast."

He estimates he fell 30 or 40 feet behind.

"At the end of the race there's this huge hill you have to go up, I'm talking like a 100-yard hill just straight uphill," Thomas said. "I just want to die. Like that's how tired I was. I just wanted to die, and he was way ahead of me."

But winning is much better than dying.

After some encouragement from a friend on the sideline, he began to sprint up the hill and took the slightest lead over his teammate, which led to the following string of events near the finish line.

"I ran around the corner and there was a flag, a post you had to go by," Thomas said. "I caught my shoulder on it when I went around the corner, and it went back and hit him in the head, but it didn't slow him down somehow."

And then.

"There's like 20 feet left to run. We were just sprinting and he clips my foot with his foot. He clips my back leg with his front leg, and we both just fall, I mean tumble, into the finish line. We just nose-dived.

"Just boom.




Oak Ridge cross country coach Jason Niswonger corroborated the story.

"He and one of my guys ended up crashing into each other, tangling up and basically crawling across the finish line to decide who was going to be the seventh person to go to state on that team," Niswonger said. "He clawed his way past the other guy, who was his own teammate. That's just how competitive he was."

Thomas remembers hearing this laying on the ground at the finish line.

Judge 1: "I think 36 beat him."

Judge 2: "Yeah, yeah, yeah, 36 got him just by a hair."

"I just remember rolling over like, 'What is my number?'" Thomas said, laughing at the memory.

"The funny part of the story is he got to go to state and he didn't have to run," said Thomas, who hadn't considered the team might take an alternate. "I wish I would've lost because then I could have went and stayed in the hotel and went out to eat with the team, and I wouldn't have to run."

But losing isn't something he can tolerate.

"I wasn't going to not beat him," he said. "That's not happening."

Defeat always has tortured him, and he is completely unapologetic about what he'll do to avoid it.

"So yeah, it may not be the most sportsy thing to do or class act or whatever BS like that, but I know that I want to win," Thomas said. "I think that gives you an edge if you want to win more than the other person. That goes back to that bulldog mentality, that want to be better, that want to win."

He says this flatly without emotion or attitude. It's just another fact for him.

"It's not a big deal," he said. "That's just how it is. That's just how I play."

Whatever it takes

Thomas was a first-team all-state basketball player as a senior with a stat-sheet enthusiast's dream season, averaging 19.3 points to go with 13.2 rebounds and 7.6 assists per game. He and his teammates also broke the school record for wins for a second consecutive season, sealing victory No. 23 against Delta in the district semifinals before falling to eventual state champion Scott County Central in the title game.

Against Delta, he barked at teammates after mistakes, glared at his coach on the sideline, looked like he might pass out any second then drove by a defender for a layup and questioned more than one call. Then he found wide-open teammates in the lane during a tight fourth quarter and helped his team pull away for the win.

In other words, he had a typical night on the court.

"I definitely change character when I put on a uniform," Thomas said. "I go from a real easygoing and calm guy to, I guess that's where I let out my frustration, let out my inner madness. I don't know. I definitely change when I put that uniform on. It's cutthroat for me.

"I wouldn't want to play on my team because if you mess up, I will literally rip your head off. You can ask Puch. I've probably brought him to tears a couple times almost."

Puch is Andrew Puchbauer, who in addition to being Oak Ridge's freshman second baseman this season has the perhaps not-so-good fortune of being Thomas' younger cousin.

Puchbauer, though, seemed more honored by the treatment than bothered while recounting a mistake he made that drew Thomas' ire while Thomas was playing shortstop.

"There was two outs, runner on first and I wasn't at second for the easy play," Puchbauer said. "He had to throw it all the way across the field, and the guy was safe. He got pretty mad at me for doing that. He was like, 'You've got to be there,' and was yelling at me about that.

"It was OK. I was learning.

"He's just such a great, knowledgeable ballplayer even if he does yell at you. You take it as a hint that you're going to get better because he's sharing his knowledge with you, basically.

"I don't care because then I didn't make that mistake the rest of the season because I knew runner on first, he gets the ball or even if third gets the ball, I'm at second."

Puchbauer said Thomas constantly talked to his teammates in the field, telling them what to do before each pitch.

"Anybody that even paid a third of attention to the game knew that he was our team leader, and you can even ask Kelby, too," Puchbauer said, talking about freshman pitcher Kelby Brown. "When he was pitching, after every game, Brett would give him pointers and just help him out. He basically did that with every player."

Whatever the sport, Thomas' coaches and teammates understand this. It's the people watching who sometimes don't.

"If you never saw him play and you walked into the gym and you sat down, you'd say, 'Man, that kid has a horrible attitude,' but he doesn't," Oak Ridge basketball coach Adam Stoneking said. "He works just as hard as anybody else. He expects more of himself than anybody else.

"He wants to be a leader, and he does it in more a vocal way. He's not always going be nice about it. He's not always going to be, 'Oh come on, you'll get it next time.' He expects himself to make some of those shots or some of those passes, so he expects the same thing from his teammates."

A fan in the stands at Delta, bothered by Thomas, became borderline belligerent whenever he came near enough that the man thought he could be heard.

"Who do you think you are 3-2?" the man asked over and over again, calling Thomas by his jersey number. "You think you're somebody 3-2?"

And then again. And again.

"If you've got the attention, at least you know that you're doing something right hopefully," he said. "Whether they like you or not, at least they're watching you. I guess that's good, but I mean of course you want to be the standout. Who doesn't? Any kid would be lying if he said he didn't want to be a star pitcher or whatever or hit home runs."

Thomas emerged as a star pitcher for Oak Ridge against Winona in the state sectional round his sophomore season.

After not pitching more than four innings in a game all season thanks mostly to an elbow injury, Thomas got the complete-game 3-1 win to send the Blue Jays to their first state quarterfinal in any sport.

"I remember I thought I was going to get launched because the first pitch I threw a kid hit it about 340 feet to dead center that one-hopped the fence for a double, and then they got a hit and he scored," he said.

Thomas pitched 118 1/3 more innings with an Oak Ridge jersey on after that first inning. He gave up 10 runs over that time, stuck out 213 batters and walked 38.

The elbow injury forced him to choose between pitching and catching, his primary position off the mound.

"It was difficult because we didn't know if I wanted to pitch or catch because a lot of people thought I had a better chance of making it as a catcher than a pitcher, but I always liked pitching, so that's what I chose.

"If you have a good pitcher on the mound, you have a good chance to win no matter what. I wanted to be a part of that to where I, when I was on the mound, I was the difference-maker in the ballgame. That's what I've always believed in, and you can do that more than any other position as a pitcher. You can control a baseball game."

Thomas, who was the salutatorian of his class, also believes his mind can be an asset.

"Baseball's a game you can sit and think about, so the smarter you are, the higher baseball IQ that you have, the better you're going to be," he said. "It's such a thinking game. It's outsmarting an opponent as much as it is beating them."

He followed a junior campaign in which he was 7-2 with a 0.59 ERA with an 8-0 senior season and a 0.66 ERA. He only allowed two extra-base hits, both doubles, all season. And he did it with one giant Mizzou-Tiger shaped target on his back.

"Definitely more pressure," Thomas said about entering this season. "I had a successful year last year at the plate and pitching, so I came in and everybody wanted the exact same thing. Everybody loves a repeat story. It should be better."

Thomas struck out 109 batters in 53 innings this season, meaning more than two out of every three outs he recorded was a strikeout. He only walked 13, and five came against Naylor in the sectional round.

"Coming in, I knew I had a lot of pressure on me, but baseball's also one of the most consistent games," he said. "Usually if you're a good pitcher, you're going to stay a good pitcher. It's hard to just lose it, so I wasn't worried about the pitching really. I knew I could get kids out."

He also hit .482 with 31 RBIs, 32 runs scored and five home runs, but even gaudy numbers like that look tame when compared to his junior season when he hit .547 with 40 RBI and 12 homers.

"This year I started getting walked more and I didn't hit near as good as I did last year, but I guess that's kind of to be expected," Thomas said. "I had the season of my life. It's hard to kind of match that."

In about a month's time Thomas will leave for Missouri and enter an environment unlike any he's ever been in.

"It's a lot different because as a baseball player, as a pitcher especially, I've been reasonably successful most of my years I've pitched," Thomas said. "I've never really had to struggle, and I'm going into a situation where they all know I'm not good enough to pitch at that level yet, that I have to get better."

He one day may excel at Missouri. Or he may not. That is impossible to say today. But he's not going to be left wondering what could have been.

"I could've probably went smaller and been the successful pitcher at a smaller school as I am now, but at Mizzou there's so many resources there as far as lifting and coaching and trainers and diets and all that kind of stuff that when I go there, I'm going to come out of there as the best ballplayer I possibly could be," he said.

"I hear a lot of people saying if I hadn't partied so much in high school, if I would've done this or I would've done that, I could have been a lot better, and I don't want to say that when I come out of college. I want to say that I came out of there as good as I possibly could. Now if that's subpar, just staying how I am now and I never get any better and I come out of there not being great, then that's fine as long as I know that, as long as it's not on my conscience."

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