Allen Thomas would be the first to tell you he wasn’t a college basketball star.
Unrecruited out of River Ridge High School in 1999, he walked on at The Evergreen State College, but didn’t make the team until his junior year.
That’s when the game he loved started loving him back.
Thomas didn’t play a lot for the 2001-02 Cascade Collegiate Conference champions, who finished with a school-best 26-7 record.
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One Sunday afternoon he helped save the Geoducks’ record 20-game winning streak with a clutch performance. Two star guards argued on the court, and were sent to the bench by coach John Barbee with upstart non-conference foe Walla Walla University in the lead. Thomas took over at the point, settled Evergreen down, and the dream season continued.
Part of the first Evergreen team to reach the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics tournament, Thomas approached the sport in a way that impressed Barbee.
“He paid attention to details, and asked questions other guys didn’t,” said Barbee, who now coaches at Franklin Pierce. “He had a lot of the coaching intangibles even as a player. He would go the extra mile to make himself and his teammates better.”
On a team boasting two NAIA All-Americans in Andre Stewart and Quincy Wilder, as well as Mike Parker — who would go on to become one of the best and most popular players in Japan’s pro league — Thomas would often lead scouting report meetings.
“That was my first championship experience,” he said. “We went through some adversity. I learned to play with superstars. We slowly become a family, each week, each practice.”
All of those lessons from his playing days have helped Thomas develop as a coach. Now in his seventh year coaching boys basketball at Timberline, Thomas has answered any questions about his ability to build and sustain a high school program.
The Blazers (10-3) have a commanding lead in the Class 3A South Sound Conference after sweeping each of their seven opponents during the first round of league play. They continue to win despite graduating several stars during the past few years.
Timberline has advanced to at least the regional round of the 3A state tournament the past six seasons under Thomas. He has a 113-58 record at the school following Wednesday’s win over crosstown rival North Thurston, while the two coaches that preceded him had decidedly losing records.
Last March at the Tacoma Dome, Thomas coached the Blazers to a fourth-place finish and the program’s first state trophy since it took second in 1981.
But skeptics took a look at the 2017-18 roster, and some supposed anyone could have coached a team with multiple NCAA Division I recruits on the roster — including Erik Stevenson (freshman at Wichita State), Casson Rouse (redshirting at Eastern Washington) and Eli Morton (attending Youngstown State) — that deep into the tournament.
This season, with point guard Hunter Campau and forward Trevor Joubert the only returning rotation players, many thought would be a true test for Thomas as a coach.
He and the re-tooled Blazers have passed with flying colors. And, asked how much credit for the team’s success is owed to the coaching staff, Timberline’s players are clear.
“All of it,” said senior guard Kayden Lacy, pointing to how hard the Timberline coaching staff pushes the players during practice.
Forward Ross Jones says the guidance continues during games.
“They have all the answers, all the keys,” Jones said. “We couldn’t do any of what we do without our coaches.”
Joubert says Thomas lays a foundation for that apart from X’s and O’s.
“He has love for his players,” Joubert said. “He cares for us. He texts us, tells us what we need to do. He’s here for us all the time.”
Barbee, who has become a colleague to and a mentor for Thomas, has a similar assessment of his former player.
“Allen’s changed lives through basketball and that’s the ultimate test of a coach,” he said.
Thomas paid his dues before taking the head coaching position with the Blazers. His former coach at River Ridge, Chris Spivey — who is now at Annie Wright — brought him in as an assistant at Timberline, where Thomas has also been in charge of campus security for the past seven years.
And, Thomas assisted Jeff Drinkwine for a season at Evergreen — another that ended with the Geoducks in the national tournament.
Local coaches remember his preparation starting almost as soon as he picked up a basketball. Shelton coach Derrick Pringle operates an AAU team called DAP Sports. Thomas was one of the first kids to join, and is part of the club’s Hall of Fame.
“He wasn’t our best player but he was the smartest, had the highest basketball IQ,” Pringle said. “In high school, he’d be on the bench coaching as if he was part of the staff.”
At Evergreen, a push away from the basketball program launched Thomas’ official coaching career. Cindy Beck, a faculty member who kept the scorebook for the Geoducks, asked Thomas to coach her son Austin in AAU. He took over a team called the Invaders that also included future Olympia High School all-time scoring leader Alex Weber-Brader, and won 10 of 12 tournaments.
“Coach Spivey came out to watch and said, ‘Man, you really do a good job with the kids. Would you ever be interested in coaching high school?’ ” Thomas said. “I said no at first. When I did try it, I found out I had a passion for it.”
That passion has since been channeled by a knack for organization and individual development.
“Every year after the season, we give them a couple of weeks, then we bring in each guy and ask them how they think they did. We tell them what they need to develop. We put in a lot of time in summer, with the weight room and with skill development,” he said.
“You can’t want something that you didn’t work for. They need to be all in.”
This season’s group, primed by their long wait to assume major roles, has something other Blazers teams and opponents haven’t always had.
“Usually, by this time we’ve had an argument or some guys aren’t getting along,” said Campau, who is a four-year varsity player. “This is the first year everyone’s just chill with each other, and going out there to win.”
“I knew this would be the team that had the most chemistry. Sometimes that can carry you along better early in the season than a team with more talent that’s taking longer to come together,” he said.
“I think about guys like Kayden and Ross and Izaiah Jerenz — long, athletic defensive guys. They don’t care about points, they just wanted to play.”
With Thomas at the helm, coaches of teams with a legitimate chance to overtake the Blazers during the second half of the 3A SSC season know it won’t be easy.
“Coach Thomas does a good job of getting his kids to play hard and play together. That’s a lot harder than people think,” said Peninsula coach Matt Robles, whose team lost an overtime thriller to Timberline last week. “I really respect what he’s done with his teams in the past, and what he’s doing this year.”
Capital coach Brian Vandiver saw a huge potential win slip away on a last-second layup by Campau early in the league season.
“Allen does an outstanding job of scouting other teams, and knowing what he needs to take away from them,” he said. “The defense they are playing this year is amazing. His players are playing hard on defense, and so unselfishly on offense.”
Cole Hicks, a senior guard for the Blazers, is emphatic as to what Thomas has created at Timberline.
“This is the best basketball school in the area,” he said.