2024 All-Area Boys' Basketball Player of the Year: Unity's Henry Thomas

Apr. 20—TOLONO — Henry Thomas took a phone call last Sunday evening assuming it was to let him know he had made The News-Gazette All-Area boys' basketball First Team, a step up from making the Second Team a year ago.

While this was true, there was a little more to it.

Thomas had also earned Player of the Year honors, news he was not expecting to hear.

"Oh, wow," Thomas said as he tried and failed to find any other words. "Wow, wow, wow, wow. I don't know if I was expecting that much. Player of the Year? Oh, man. I'm shocked to death right now. That is the best thing I've heard in my four years of high school."

Two days later, the Unity senior was back in the Rocket Center with four of his fellow senior teammates — Eric Miebach, Dalton O'Neill, Jay Saunders and twin brother Andrew Thomas — who made up the starting five from this past season for the Rockets. They lifted him off the ground for a few photos, teasing that he'd gained a few pounds since their last game in late February.

Just before that, they were roaming the halls, wondering when their picture would go up on the wall next to all the others.

This Unity boys' basketball team will forever live on in school history after Thomas and the Rockets capped one of the most impressive one-year turnarounds with a 26-5 record and their first regional title since 2012.

"We always wanted that regional and somehow never got one," Thomas said of his first three years of high school. "We came so close every time but never got one. I knew we were going to be better this year, but I had no idea where we were at. We started winning games, and all of a sudden, we had one of the best years in Unity basketball."

Thomas was at the center of it all. This time last year, the Rockets were fresh off a 16-15 season with nearly the same roster, and 2000 Unity graduate Matt Franks was set to take over the program as head coach after spending the previous six seasons coaching at Morton.

The soon-to-be seniors had multiple reasons to jump ship, but Thomas knew his history. He knew Franks played in the golden era of Unity basketball, when winning a regional title was the lowest bar and going to state was never out of the question. Franks was also bringing with him a crew of proud former Rockets to join his staff.

With all this in mind, Thomas and his teammates got right back to work.

"It starts and ends with his unbelievable work ethic," Franks said of Thomas. "The success of your team is so much higher when your best player is your hardest worker. We never had to coach Henry on effort. He came in with the expectation of getting better. What makes him special and why our kids respected Henry is because of his work ethic. They knew he was putting in the time, and he just genuinely wanted his team to be successful."

Putting in the work

What exactly was done behind the scenes to prepare for the 2023-24 season only a select few know, but it was enough to get the Rockets off to an 18-0 start.

"It was hard last year because we knew we had the potential. We loved basketball, but we had a tough time figuring it out," Thomas said. "There are some people who like the game but don't like the extra work. I love doing the extra stuff because it's always fun learning and trying new things that I'm not used to."

It was because of Thomas' extra work that he was the one with the ball in his hands in the most important moments of the season. The best example is from Unity's 73-72 overtime loss to St. Joseph-Ogden on Feb. 9. The Rockets trailed by 10 points at the end of the third quarter, and that's when the 6-foot-1, 180-pound Thomas turned it on. He scored 18 of his team-high 27 points in the fourth quarter, willing his team to push the game to overtime in front of a sold-out crowd at the Rocket Center.

Thomas simply has the clutch gene, but he said it's less about being confident and wanting the ball in his hands and more about being optimistic and letting his preparation take over. He figured out during his sophomore year that "I'm not a first-half guy." He uses the first half to gauge what is and isn't going to work that particular night. The rest of the game, he attacks with what works.

SJ-O coach Kiel Duval, this season's N-G Coach of the Year, called Thomas an "absolute matchup nightmare," and that's why his twin brother just kept feeding him the ball in those late-game scenarios. Andrew Thomas said Henry would tell him to take one for himself every once in a while, but he'd pass it right back to Henry, who would then drive the lane and score yet again.

"Nobody just shows up and excels in those moments," Franks said. "In those times, Henry's the guy. He's put in the work, and it's time for him to shine. He did a tremendous job answering that and not shying away from those moments."

An unselfish attitude

Thomas does shy away from the spotlight, which is why he was so surprised when he received The News-Gazette's Player of the Year honor, the first for a Unity player since Tyler Smith in 2003. His numbers don't jump off the page — he averaged 11 points, four rebounds, 2.6 steals and 1.9 assists per game — but he still led the team in most of them, and they'd undoubtedly be much higher if it wasn't for Unity's style of play this year.

The Rockets had a lot of depth, and they used it. Most games, the starters would play the first four or five minutes before making a complete platoon swap, and the next five guys would play the rest of the quarter. That would continue the remainder of the game, spreading playing time all throughout the team and leaving Thomas and others fewer opportunities to showcase their talent. But it didn't seem to matter.

"Henry was such a team-first guy," Franks said. "He was always our best scorer, and the way we played this year was we got guys a lot of minutes. It adversely impacted Henry, but you would never know it. It's kind of scary to think about the numbers he could have had, but it never fazed Henry. He just focused on the team. Our best player was selfless, and he deserves all the credit in the world for his leadership abilities, maturity and focus."

Closing in on a goal

That's one reason getting to 1,000 career points this year was a big deal for Thomas, and Franks made him sweat it out. Thomas knew he was getting close to the milestone a handful of games into the season, so he talked with his coach about how they were going to approach it.

"He gave me the number I was away," Thomas said. "Then, he goes, 'This is basically the last time I'm telling you. I'll tell you when you're close, but I won't tell you when you get it because I don't want you going in there and shooting shots you shouldn't be shooting.'"

A good coaching move, especially after Thomas joked in early January he would be chucking up random three-pointers if he knew he was stuck on 997 points.

The milestone moment happened on Jan. 26, a home game against Prairie Central. Franks told him he needed 14 points before the game, and he went into halftime with five. Per usual, he heated up in the second half, and he made sure to take extra time with a wide-open layup that got him to that number. The Rockets celebrated, but Franks may have pulled another good coaching move in telling Thomas how many points he needed.

"He thought he needed 14, but he only needed 12, so everyone went insane on the 14th when he already scored it like three possessions ago," Andrew Thomas said with a laugh. "That was pretty fun, and it was his signature, 'I'm going to drive the lane and score the ball.' I was pretty proud of him for that."

Making the most of it

Andrew said that was his favorite moment he's shared on the basketball court with his brother, and they'll get plenty more over the next four years. The week after Unity's sectional semifinal loss to Teutopolis on Feb. 28, the Thomas twins announced their commitment to continue their playing careers at Illinois College together.

The first person Henry mentioned in helping him get to where he is today was Andrew. Those two have been playing basketball together since second grade, so it's fitting they'll get to continue that journey together even longer. Of course, their brotherly bond had something to do with their decision, too.

"Just playing with him again," Andrew said of what he's most looking forward to. "We have a special connection where I understand what he's going through and he understands what I'm going through. I'm going to have him by my side everywhere I go, so if I'm struggling on the basketball court or in school, he'll be right there."

Henry Thomas couldn't express his appreciation enough before getting off the phone. A lot of his shock came from the way he plays the game. He's "very, very, very simple," admittedly "not flashy with the ball" and "not fast at all." He's humble, and he just focuses on making the right play.

Thomas made enough of them this past season to lead the Rockets where they hadn't been in a dozen years, and that's how he'll remember his final year at Unity.

"We only had one more shot," Thomas said. "It's nice that I'm not saying 'What if this?' or 'What if that?' I feel so accomplished with everything that happened this year."