College Basketball

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Up-and-coming St. Thomas program building pipeline to Katy area hoops

By DENNIS SILVA II, Times Sports Editor
Posted 3/5/20

University of St. Thomas men’s basketball coach Anthony Medina remembers when he was sold on Nathan Thormaehlen.

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College Basketball

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Up-and-coming St. Thomas program building pipeline to Katy area hoops

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University of St. Thomas men’s basketball coach Anthony Medina remembers when he was sold on Nathan Thormaehlen.

Medina went to watch the sharp-shooting Katy High senior forward at a home game during the 2015-16 season. The Tigers lost.

“When the game was over, I was talking to his parents and he came over and said hello and thanked me for coming to the game," Medina said. “He then apologized and said, ‘I hope you don’t mind; I have to put these chairs away. We just got beat and our coach shouldn’t have to do this.’”

So, Medina joined Thormaehlen in putting away the bench chairs and breaking down the scorer’s table.

“I knew that day that that was who I wanted in our program,” said Medina, who built his initial recruiting class around Thormaehlen and twin guards Kennard and Lennard Robinson. “What stood out to me about Nate that day was that selflessness and leadership and how much he cares about other people. I thought those characteristics would take us a long way.”

Medina, now in his fifth season at the helm of St. Thomas, has built his program on those intangibles. It’s paid off, with 62 wins, a NAIA conference tournament championship and NAIA Division I national tournament berth, and a NCAA Division III regular season conference tournament title over the last three seasons.

“We built the program on personality and character,” Medina said. “It wasn’t all about skillset and ability. I recruited the kids I thought would compete the way we wanted to and be the way we wanted them to in the locker room and on campus and in the community.”

Not coincidentally, Medina has also found himself recruiting the Katy area more and more.

Five Katy natives are on the Celts’ roster: Thormaehlen (Katy High), senior forward Nicholas Perez (St. John XXIII), and freshmen Austin Arnold (Taylor High), Andrew Adebo (Cinco Ranch) and Nestor Daboin (The Village/Tompkins). The Celts have had a dominant first year of their probationary period in transitioning from NAIA to NCAA Division III this season, going 23-2 and winning the regular season Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference title.

While St. Thomas cannot compete for a conference tournament championship this season or next, being in provisional status for NCAA D3, it did qualify for the United States Collegiate Athletic Association postseason tournament later this month. The Celts are ranked No. 3 in USCAA’s Division I in what has been their finest season in program history.

“It’s huge,” Arnold said. “We’re just breaking records, putting St. Thomas on the map as a place to be at.”

LIKE HOME

To understand how St. Thomas got to this point, or why Katy kids are finding a home off Montrose Boulevard, it’s important to understand Medina. He’s who makes it all come together.

Medina played at St. Thomas from 2009-2012 after graduating from The Woodlands. He is a native of El Paso but has lived in Houston almost his whole life.

He took over the Celts in 2015.

“I inherited an entire team which none were my recruits,” Medina said. “Going into the second season, we were going to have a very specific way of doing things. A number of kids quit early in the second season. They weren’t happy, didn’t enjoy it. It was the best thing that could’ve ever happened to the program because the right people were in the room when it was over.”

Medina’s second season at the helm was Thormaehlen’s freshman season. It was rough. The Celts went 13-17, starting three freshmen, including Thormaehlen.

Thormaehlen, who was also a backup quarterback at Katy High, chose St. Thomas coming out of high school, but it was close. Texas Lutheran was another place he seriously considered. But staying close to home, the money being right, and strong academics were all factors for the criminology major.

And, there was Medina.

“How consistent he was when he was recruiting me was impressive,” Thormaehlen said. “I hadn’t even heard of St. Thomas. But he was persistent. He called me frequently. He came to my graduation party, when I wasn’t even sold on St. Thomas yet, and he showed up with his kid. He builds that relationship first, and it’s what he does best.”

Perez followed. Then, the 2019 recruiting class brought Arnold and Adebo.

“It was easy for me,” Arnold said. “I was sold on them early. I really liked Coach, and he made it apparent he really wanted me. I shut my recruiting process down early. I committed before my senior season. He just made it feel like home.

“After every game, he’d text and ask me how I did. He called me every weekend. He also came to my graduation party, stayed the whole time. He had an in-home visit with me and was there for, like, eight hours. He brought his kid, Memphis. The way he recruits is (if) he can trust you around his kid, then you’re someone he wants.”

Medina said the NAIA has better individual talent than NCAA Division III, but the quality of teams and the coaching at the D3 level are stronger. A primary difference is that NAIA can offer athletic scholarships, and D3 does not. However, about 75 percent of D3 student-athletes receive some form of merit or need-based financial aid, according to ncaa.org.

All of that is fine and well. But to Medina, it should not be the purpose.

“If a kid’s primary question is about basketball or how many minutes or style of play or what position they’ll play … I don’t think we’ve ever gotten a kid that asked those questions first on their visit,” Medina said. “Those just aren’t my highest priorities. I believe in people and families and trying to do things in a way that can support growing individuals. When we talk to them, we talk about the education they’re going to get or our high academic system or the support system. You can be comfortable, but develop long-term to be the best you can be.”

FINDING THEIR WAY

Daboin, who spent his first three years of high school at Tompkins before transferring to The Village for his senior campaign, hated the cold of Michigan. He chose to go to Davenport University, located in Grand Rapids, coming out of high school. He played a handful of games last semester. It was rough.

Now he admits that when he first went through the recruiting process, he did not have any idea what he was doing. So, when he looked for another school late last semester, Daboin remembered Medina, who was the first coach to recruit him.

Perez, too, is another Katy product who transferred to St. Thomas. He came over from Mountain View College in Dallas.

Medina is a reason why players end up at St. Thomas. He offers an empathy and presence that they can’t find elsewhere.

“He’s a player’s coach, in the true definition of it,” Daboin said. “He cares about basketball, obviously, but his main thing is caring about who you are as a person and how you grow as a person. To me, that’s big to have a coach who you can trust and be a good influence on you as a person, not just as a basketball player.”

But the basketball is pretty good, too.

The Celts led the conference in scoring, averaging 89.4 points per game. Medina wants 75 shot attempts per game in order to get more players opportunities to catch a rhythm; his team averages 66.5.

Daboin has played in just two games, but figures heavily into the team’s future as a versatile, rangy defender and rim-runner who can make plays with his length and athleticism.

St. Thomas prides itself on its aggressive man defense that is predicated upon a lot of switching. It does not shy away from mismatches because of how strong the help rotation scheme is.

The idea is to get stops and deflections and get out in transition, where Medina wants to play with pace and shoot a lot of 3-pointers on offense.

Thormaehlen is one of the team’s top players, averaging 10.9 points, 7.2 rebounds and shooting 41 percent from 3. Arnold has been a revelation with his catch-and-shoot ability, leading the SCAC in 3-point shooting and averaging 6.9 points in 7.9 minutes per game.

“Offensively, he’s one of the biggest weapons we have because he spaces the floor so well for us,” Medina said of Arnold. “I haven’t been around a kid that can shoot it like that, with the exception of another Katy kid, Sam Flores, who graduated last year. Austin is incredible.

“He recognizes what he does offensively is what makes him special, but what makes him valuable is the ability to continue to develop as a defensive player.”

Strong words for a player who came in as a wide-eyed freshman and took “maybe two or three” shots, total, during the first few weeks of practice.

“Then I just started hitting a groove,” Arnold said. “I wasn’t playing at first, which I was OK with, and Coach threw me into some games, and I made some shots. I earned some time. My teammate Christian (Alaekwe) sat me down and told me, ‘If you’re not shooting, what are you really out there for?’ And that opened my eyes. Ever since, every chance I could, I’m launching that thing.”

Adebo has only played in 14 games but is remaking himself as a player. At Cinco Ranch, he was asked to do everything as, arguably, the team’s best scorer and defensive player. At St. Thomas, he is more of a defensive specialist, where his focus is on things like using his hands less on defense and doing more film study and footwork drills.

“The speed is faster,” Adebo said. “Getting into condition for that style and level of play is a lot harder. Shooting is more important and crucial; I’ve worked a lot on my range and shot. My role is different. At Cinco, I was one of the main people. Here, it’s more about defense for me, moving without the ball and passing and cutting.”

LEAVING A MARK

Medina credits the basketball success in Katy to strong youth programs that develop kids well in regard to skillset, teaching the game, respecting and appreciating the game, and playing defense.

“All of those things are a priority with kids from Katy, and the high school coaches take that and grow it in their programs,” Medina said. “(Taylor) Coach (Matthew) Brayton, (Katy) Coach (Danny) Russell, (Cinco Ranch) Coach (Neil) King. All do an incredible job of really teaching, so it’s an area we always look to in recruiting, starting with the young kids coming through Katy High School, Cinco Ranch and Katy Taylor. We want to know who’s coming up and who has the grades, because we know they’ll be well-coached and well-developed.”

The Katy kids take it as a source of pride that there is a pipeline being built from their university to their hometown.

“It’s cool,” Daboin said. “I grew up watching Big Nate when I was on the freshman ‘A’ team. I knew Austin. I knew Andrew. I’ve always seen and known these guys, and being able to get closer to them while on the same team is pretty neat.”

Medina said he hopes to have more Katy kids coming in the next couple of recruiting classes. He feels the university has a recruiting advantage in proximity to home—“close, but not too close"—and academics.

And, now, he can add a winning culture to that list.

“Competing in the Red River was a privilege because it’s such a respected conference in NAIA,” Thormaehlen said. “But now in D3, we definitely want to make a mark. We won the conference and we’re leaving a mark for these young kids coming in. Every school and player talks about leaving their imprint, but until you do, you don’t really understand how much it will mean to you. This is an exciting time for all of us.”

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