College Sports

Katy native Thomas grateful for NCAA ruling on eligibility

By DENNIS SILVA II, Times Sports Editor
Posted 3/31/20

There were frustrating and torturous days three weeks ago when Lee Thomas thought his college baseball career was over. Almost as quickly as his senior season had started, it was done away with.

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College Sports

Katy native Thomas grateful for NCAA ruling on eligibility

Posted

There were frustrating and torturous days three weeks ago when Lee Thomas thought his college baseball career was over. Almost as quickly as his senior season had started, it was done away with.

The Katy native and University of Incarnate Word senior infielder remembers the Cardinals’ home series against New Mexico being abruptly canceled on March 12. The next thing he knew, he was on his way home after the university requested all students to be out of their dorms by March 30.

“Everything started getting canceled,” said Thomas, who starred at Cinco Ranch High. “The College World Series wasn’t going to happen, and that’s when it really hit. I was in denial. I had gone 0-for-5 in my last game, and I thought, ‘No way in my final college baseball game did I go 0-for-5.’ And then I got serious about it. Wow. That was my last time. That was the last time I’d lace up being a player for Incarnate Word. Then I got upset.”

Precautions for the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, turned the sports world upside down earlier this month, and it remains that way with no apparent return to normalcy on the horizon. Not long after the NCAA canceled March Madness and the College World Series, it canceled spring sports, entirely, for the rest of the season.

Thomas coped with the idea that he had put on his UIW No. 22 jersey for the last time.

“For those days, everything was really quiet,” Thomas said. “Going into your senior year, your mindset is to go as hard as you can. Empty the tank. At least I’d do it my way. I’d have Senior Day. I could celebrate the moment with my family. I could enjoy and have my last AB (at-bat). It was upsetting. You have somebody who makes baseball their life for so long … everybody has their way they want to walk out, you know? If they’re going to leave their cleats on the field, they want to leave them their way.

“My freshman year of high school, people tell you that you have eight years. How do you want to be remembered? Everyone has that thought process, and when it goes a different way, it’s not ideal.”

Fortunately, those unsettling thoughts didn’t last long. On March 30, the NCAA announced it was permitting spring sport athletes who had their seasons shortened by COVID-19 to have an additional year of eligibility. The NCAA Division I Council voted to give baseball, softball and lacrosse athletes back their lost seasons in 2020-2021, but financial aid is not guaranteed and how much scholarship money will be granted will be determined by the athlete’s school. Roster limits will be adjusted to accommodate returning athletes with incoming recruits.

The vote was a godsend for Thomas, who said he plans to take advantage of the ruling and return to San Antonio for his senior season.

“I was already grateful, but I’m more grateful,” Thomas said. “I had the game taken away from me, unexpectedly, and even though I knew it was my last season, it was a lot. I’m going to continue to count my blessings and play as hard as I can for as long as I can.”

The 6-foot-2, 215-pound Thomas was enjoying another stellar season this year, hitting .328 with 12 RBIs and a home run in 16 games. Thomas had a .480 on-base percentage and .466 slugging percentage.

It was right where he picked up from his 2019 junior season, when he hit .280 with 46 RBIs, 12 home runs and a .533 slugging percentage.

Thomas said he received a check-in call from UIW coach Ryan Shotzberger about a week ago. That’s when it occurred to him that it was possible his days in the Cardinals’ red and black were not over.

“My coach called me, and he goes, ‘Look, if what it is is true and you get a year back, there’s no question that we want you.’ Instantly you start thinking about the what-ifs,” Thomas said. “Reality is still that you’re sitting at home, not playing, but then you start to think. I think he was giving me hope. He told me he wanted me back leading the ship. We were up to something. We were having a great year, and we were looking for another playoff run. Everything just happened so quick.”

Thomas only started playing baseball when he was eight years old. It wasn’t until his junior year at Cinco Ranch that he realized it was what he wanted to seriously pursue.

“I loved the work with baseball,” Thomas said. “I loved the work ethic it built for me. I loved the process. I’d go out there with my dad and hit for hours out there at Cinco. He’d throw me pop flies or throw me scoops. I just grew a love for it.”

Before the NCAA made its announcement on Monday, Thomas said he had received interest in playing professionally, either in independent baseball or the Mexican League. Though his UIW days might have been done, his career wasn’t.

“It wasn’t the fact that I ever thought I was done playing baseball,” Thomas said. “I thought I was done playing baseball representing UIW. It was the end of an era. My future was in question, and I just thought it was sad.”

Thomas is unsure of the next step for being granted a waiver for extra eligibility. But he at least knows not all is lost.

“It’s just work and preparation, going back to the drawing board and resetting the clock for February 14 (opening day next season),” said Thomas, who has a .285 average with 94 RBIs and 16 home runs with a .378 on-base percentage in 113 games for the Cardinals. “Take the long summer, work out, prepare, and make sure I’m the best Lee Thomas I can be by February 14. Work as hard as I can, trust my coaches and coach myself. This university gave me an opportunity that most didn’t. I owe them all I’ve got.”

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