Yes, the opportunity was there for Tyler Thomas to attend prep school rather than stay for his senior year at Amity High. An opportunity to maybe advance his boys basketball career?
Regardless, Thomas chose to stay.
“I wanted the challenge of bringing the first (state) title to Amity,” Thomas said before this past season began. “I didn’t want to leave Amity. People pulled at me to go. My dad didn’t want me to go.”
A parent not wanting you to leave of course makes sense. Besides, Lafayette, Stonehill, Bentley, Colgate, Babson, Conn College, Pace and LIU-Post were among the schools that already had interest in Thomas’ services.
But it was the first part of what Thomas said that was intriguing. Every kid dreams of leading their team to a state championship as a senior. Every kid who laces up sneakers wants the chance to play in the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville.
But bring a state championship to Amity in basketball? The Spartans had never even been to a state semifinal, let alone a final. Yet there Thomas was, putting the Spartans on his back to reach that first final.
“The season had a lot of ups and downs. It brought us closer as a family,” said Thomas, the Register’s Area MVP. “I think we set a huge example for the kids in middle school that Amity is a basketball school, not just a baseball school or whatever. It means a lot to us when no one else did it, even though we didn’t finish the way we wanted it to.”
Amity fell to Immaculate in the Division II final at the Sun. Still, it set the benchmark for future Amty clubs.
“I definitely at first wouldn’t have imagined that happening,” said Amity coach Jeff Nielsen, who just completed his 20th season at the helm. “Tyler meant everything to us. He was the driving force behind the team this year, the main reason for the run. It’s not a one-man game but he was the main reason for us getting that far.”
Thomas averaged 26 points, 8.0 rebounds and 5.0 assists, leading the Spartans to a 15-5 regular-season record. That included a career-high 47 points against Notre Dame-West Haven.
Amity earned the No. 6 seed in the SCC tournament and fell to Hamden, the eventual champion, in the quarterfinals..”“We thought we could play with Hamden, but their size and speed got to us a lot faster than we anticipated. But we didn’t set out being the SCC champions, We set our eyes on a state championship.”
First came a convincing win over Hartford Public, then a come-from-behind win against Manchester in overtime. Thomas scored 28 points in that second-round game.
“They made several turnovers and we capitalized off their mistakes,” Thomas said. “The momentum swing and all agreed knew once we got to overtime, we were not coming out of Manchester with the loss.”
“When you first get there (to the Mohegan Sun Arena), it’s a surreal feeling. It’s a huge arena to take it all in,” Thomas said. “You appreciate how you got there reminiscing how you got there. But once the game starts all that anxiousness and thinking goes away and it’s just basketball again.”
Thomas scored 16 points in the first half, but Immaculate made some adjustments and held Thomas to just one point over the final 16 minutes.
“In the first half, it was more of a single coverage and I thought I could shoot over (the defender),” Thomas said. “I couldn’t’ do anything second half. (Immaculate) sent a double team every time I caught the ball. I couldn’t pass or dribble effectively with my left hand. I tried to get other guys involved. Our offense stagnated.”
Thomas suffered a fall in the semifinals, injuring his left wrist. He reinjured it in the final. That played a part in the struggles against Immaculate.
Thomas ended up with 1,531 career just two points shy of the school’s all-time record held by Ed Goldstone. Thomas accomplished the feat in just three seasons — having transferred in before the beginning of his sophomore year from Longmeadow, Massachusetts.
Nielsen acknowledged that a change was made in mid-season to move Thomas from the point guard spot to shooting guard. Since he also drew the tough assignments on the defensive end of the floor, he was getting worn down.
“We realized it was time for someone else to bring the ball up the floor,” Nielsen said. “We couldn’t keep having him as the main ballhandler for 32 minutes.”
Both Nielsen and Thomas acknowledged that Thomas had input on the game plans, and changes were sometimes made.
“One time, I thought the lineup should change,” Thomas said. “We’ve had general conversation about things and we always talked about schemes before the game. Sometimes he didn’t (make the change), sometimes he did. You take what you can get sometimes. It was nice to be able to have those conversations. He understands where I come from and (vice versa). In my sophomore or junior year, I didn’t have those conversations.”
So Thomas had quite the season to remember and will still end up at prep school. He decided to attend Williston Northampton (Mass.), a chance to improve his game even more and also get a chance to get more Division I interest.
“Honestly, I want to end up in New York. I want to be in the city,” Thomas said. “Conditioning-wise, I need to stay healthy. I was battling tendonitis in both knees during the season. And I need to raise my SAT scores.”
Said Nielsen: “I think it will definitely help in the long run. You play against a higher level of competition, you live away from home, you get a little bigger and stronger, fill out his frame, get in the weight room and get stronger and day in and day day out practice will all help him succeed at the next level.”
Now Amity tries to find a way to move on with possibly the best player to ever come through the program.
“Tyler is the best player I’ve ever coached,” Nielsen said. “Overall, from his sophomore to senior year, he improved every aspect of his game. Everyone looks at scoring, but he became a better ballhandler, passer and his defense and he stepped up in the state tournament. … You don’t replace Tyler Thomas, he’s that good, he had that big of an impact. We don’t have anyone ready to step into his shoes.”