HARRISBURG, Pa. — As the doors swung open to the main entrance at Central Dauphin High School, a line of smiling faces awaited Alyssa Thomas. Family, coaches, administrators and friends eagerly gathered on a summer afternoon to welcome back the most accomplished women’s basketball player from Pennsylvania’s state capital.
It was Thomas’s first visit in many months to her home town, where the 6-foot-2 forward left Central Dauphin as its all-time scoring leader, boys or girls, and continued her ascent at Maryland by becoming the first in school history to be named ACC player of the year twice.
With the regular season set to begin Friday, the senior has been named an Associated Press preseason all-American and is on the short list for national player of the year honors. That designation also would be a first for the Terrapins, who are ranked No. 8 in the AP poll with a roster that’s the deepest since Coach Brenda Frese arrived a dozen years ago.
Frese has called Thomas “a once in a lifetime” player, and statistics suggest that isn’t mere hyperbole. Last year, with Maryland’s roster severely depleted following a rash of injuries, Thomas shared point guard duties while becoming the only player in NCAA history to average 18.8 points, 10.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists in a single season.
That versatility took root long before she set foot in College Park and even before Thomas made an immediate splash in high school.
“Let’s face it: Alyssa was special from the day that she walked in here,” said Scott Singer, a strength and conditioning coach at Central Dauphin who has worked extensively with Thomas since her first year of high school. “In fact, a lot of the girls like to tell the story that they kind of had to go to her and say: ‘Hey, you are the best. Yes, you’re just a freshman, but you are the best player on the team. It’s okay for you take over.’ ”
Soon after arriving in College Park in 2010, Thomas requested to wear No. 25, the same number worn by Marissa Coleman, who is second in career points at Maryland and was a starter on the Terrapins’ 2006 national championship team. Thomas needs 515 points to surpass Coleman and 557 points to overcome Crystal Langhorne, also a starter on the NCAA title team, as Maryland’s all-time scoring leader.
Coleman “told me if I’m messing up, she’s going to take the number back from me,” Thomas said.
The dearth of social distractions in Harrisburg — a city of about 50,000, which is only about 10,000 more than the total student population at Maryland — accommodated Thomas’s busy basketball schedule. There was Arooga’s Grille House & Sports Bar, where Thomas eats chicken wings when she visits home. Nearby is a Sheetz convenience store, where Thomas would go for snacks.
“There’s also a Subway down the street. That’s about it,” she said.
When she wasn’t at the gym, Thomas would play one-on-one in the asphalt driveway against her younger brother, Devin, a member of the ACC all-freshman team at Wake Forest last season. So heated was the competition that Alyssa and Devin occasionally attempted to settle their differences by wrestling on the front lawn.
“Unlike most siblings, my sister would beat me [in basketball] because she was so skilled. She could use either hand,” Devin said. “I’d get mad, and we’d fight.”
Alyssa and Devin remain competitive to this day, perhaps even more now that both are playing in one of the most recognized college basketball conferences in the country. The sibling rivalry received national attention two years ago after Devin’s dunk during a high school basketball game shattered the backboard and went viral over the Internet.
The clip rose to first among the top 10 plays on ESPN’s “SportsCenter,” but the next day, Alyssa seized the headlines from her brother by blocking a shot against then-No. 5 Duke as time expired to seal a 63-61 victory. The block became No. 1 on the top 10 plays and eventually surpassed Devin’s dunk on the top plays for the entire week.
“Even at a young age she was a student of the game,” said Karen Hicks, who coached Thomas at Holy Name junior high school before taking over at Central Dauphin three years ago. “She really wanted to learn the game, and that’s why Alyssa, even in eighth grade, honest to God you could put an offense in, and she knew all five positions.”
Hicks recalled designing a play specifically for Thomas that year and marveling at the results. Thomas would dribble the ball up the court, give it to a teammate, make a backdoor cut, spot the alley-oop pass coming her way and tap the ball into the basket. The play was impossible to defend, and in short time, Holy Name was being called “Holy Gamers” because of the attention Thomas brought to the program.
“People would come see us just because of some of the plays we would run with her,” Hicks said. “Even though [opponents] were trying to take it away, they couldn’t outjump her, and they didn’t know how to front her. That play always stuck out because for eighth grade it was just mind-blowing.”
Several years later, Frese had to decide between scouting Thomas for the first time at a summer tournament in Baltimore or flying to Argentina for a USA Basketball event featuring some of the country’s most promising high school players.
Frese opted to make the short drive up Interstate 95 and didn’t need long to realize she had chosen correctly.
“Through the course of my time you can remember a half a dozen players when you specifically knew how special they were going to be,” Frese said. “I just in my gut felt like I needed to go see her.”
Other national powerhouses such as Notre Dame, Connecticut and Penn State also were calling, but Frese pursued Thomas with extra gusto, enamored with the immense potential of a teenager who at 18 months got her first basketball from her grandmother and began playing the sport at 5 at the behest of her mother.
Thomas committed to Maryland as a junior shortly before the early-signing period. During an unofficial visit to College Park, she had called Bill Wolfe, her high school coach, to inform him of the decision, citing the family atmosphere Frese and her staff promoted as well the relatively close proximity to her home town that would allow her parents to attend games.
During one particularly memorable weekend early in February, Thomas, her parents and younger sister all gathered at Comcast Center to watch Wake Forest and Devin play the Terrapins. Near the end of Maryland’s 86-60 victory, fans began chanting, “Alyssa’s better.”
The next day, the two-time all-American had 24 points, 12 rebounds, four assists, four blocks and two steals in an 85-62 victory over visiting Boston College.
“Coming in, you really don’t know how you’re going to do,” Thomas said in a rare moment of reflection about her basketball career. “The coaches pump you up, tell you you’re going to be great, but until you’re actually playing, you really don’t know what to expect. It’s been everything and more. I honestly still don’t believe the things I’ve accomplished, but there’s so much left out there.”