Luke Thomas fires a pitch from the mound this spring. He’s planning to play college baseball. (PJ Ward-Brown/Randolph Record)
CLIMAX – Whatever the sport at Providence Grove, Luke Thomas had the ball in his hands.
Those were good hands for the Patriots.
“I like being in control of the game. I don’t like leaning on other players,” Thomas said. “I like being the make-or-break type of guy.”
Thomas helped make Providence Grove relevant on just about every level during a high school career that turned out unmatched.
“A fixture not only in the football program but a fixture in the whole athletic program,” said Calvin Brown, the athletics director and football coach. “Pretty much everything that our athletic department has done for four years, on the male side, has revolved around Luke Thomas.”
The recognition extended beyond the Patriots. He’s the Male Athlete of the Year for the Piedmont Athletic Conference.
His impact came in various forms – from the quarterback who was the PAC’s Offensive Player of the Year in football, a starting guard on the school’s PAC regular-season champion basketball team, and the lead-off batter and starting pitcher for the baseball team.
Aside from statistics and accolades, it was clear Thomas was making a difference. You don’t have to investigate much to find the guy with the golden locks flowing out of the helmet or baseball cap.
“I haven’t cut it,” he said of the flow. “I’ve always liked it. When I first did it, nobody really had it. My grandma could find me on the field.”
Thomas, 18, is heading to UNC Greensboro as a pitcher after this summer’s American Legion baseball season with Eastern Randolph Post 81.
To excel as a three-sport athlete was something that gave Thomas a sense of satisfaction, not to mention the team success that evolved.
The breakdown for Thomas goes like this: “The funnest sport to play is football because there’s nothing like it. … I had to work the hardest at basketball. My overall favorite is baseball.”
Even as the individual accolades piled up, Thomas seemed prone to brag on teammates.
“I’m confident, but I’m not cocky,” Thomas said. “You have to have a little swagger. I get a lot of hate sometimes when I go places. But that’s fine. That comes with doing a lot of things and trying to be good in sports. You know that coming in. That’s what we ask for.”
Check a postgame handshake line, and it’s often clear that Thomas receives doses of respect from the opponents.
It’s no surprise that he’s well-known around Randolph County. He has been doing this for quite some time.
Better be ready
In the third game of the 2018 football season, Providence Grove quarterback Andrew Poteat went out with a torn knee ligament. There weren’t many options for Brown.
“From that point, Luke was the guy,” he said. “We knew Luke was going to be good, and we also knew he was a freshman.”
There was no junior varsity team, so Thomas had been the varsity backup. Thomas said he wasn’t sure he was ready, and yet the circumstances dictated that he would be thrust into a key role.
“I got thrown into the fire, and it ended up working out for me,” he said.
That began a stretch when Thomas set every school passing record. By last fall, when he threw for 22 touchdowns, it took his career total to 55. He passed for more than 6,000 yards, even with the abbreviated 2021 spring season (replacing the nixed 2020 season).
“Each year, we put more and more on his shoulders, but he could handle that,” Brown said.
The Patriots have had eight-win records the past two full seasons. There was even a 2021 home game in the state playoffs.
“It’s unheard of,” Thomas said. “Providence Grove could barely get into a playoff game. We weren’t happy with the result. I had higher expectations for myself and my team. I’m glad I ended on that field.”
Yet so often, Thomas left that venue only to turn up at another the next day to play another sport.
Brown said he knew Thomas’ pursuit of baseball was important and marveled at how the morning after a football game that he would be on the way to play baseball.
“That says a lot about him to turn around the next day and go pitch because college coaches wanted to see him,” Brown said. “He was always up for those challenges. He always had that drive and competitiveness.”
For Thomas, it was a sense of pride in being a three-sport athlete and a difference-maker.
“Showing you can do all three and still get where you want to be,” Thomas said. “About every weekend (in the fall), I was playing baseball. I’d try to recover a little bit. That’s what I had to do because of my situation.
“That is not easy to do. It’s very hard on your body and mentally. You don’t always want to play Friday night and get up Saturday morning and go play baseball.”
So after dodging defenders and flinging the football around the field, those 7 a.m. wake-up moments and perhaps a two-hour drive were a grind.
“You’re not the most fresh that next day,” he said. “I can’t really complain about it.”
On days he didn’t pitch, he usually was slotted for another position in the field.
In basketball, Thomas was regarded as the Patriots’ best defender, which coach Wes Luther said was only a slim part of what made him so critical for the Patriots.
“My thing is defense. If I can bring that, they’re going to take care of the rest,” Thomas said of his teammates. “I can have a good night every once and a while. That’s not my job with this team. My job is to defend and take care of the ball.”
Yet he turned in a 24-point performance against Randleman in an overtime victory in the PAC Tournament.
He missed a few midseason basketball games because of a meniscus ailment and later wore a brace on his right knee. And even with hair tied up to keep it out of his eyes, it wasn’t difficult to identify one of the best athletes on the court.
Much of the influence for what seems like this nonstop success came from his father, Doug Thomas. A conversation about his achievements is bound to involve the father-son connection.
“I started being successful because I started working a lot harder, getting in the weight room,” Luke Thomas said. “Dad pushed me, just having support. Somebody to humble you and somebody to give you support when you need to be pulled up.”
The elder Thomas has been an assistant coach for the Providence Grove baseball team. Early on, he planted the idea that Providence Grove would be an ideal setting for notable accomplishments if coupled with the right work ethic.
There was no reason to look elsewhere, even if rosters at other schools often seemed to have changing personnel.
“I wanted to show people you could win doing it this way,” Luke Thomas said. “You could do it with your buddies and the kids you went to elementary school with. I like the way I did it. I showed people you could stay at your own school and be successful. I think that’s a big thing in high school. I like the underdog aspect of it.”
At times, Providence Grove might seem like an out-of-the-way rural school almost devoid of fanfare. That’s something that Thomas used as motivation.
“We get disrespected,” he said. “When you do it the right way, you’re not going to have the greatest seasons. When you have Randleman, Eastern (Randolph), Asheboro, Southwest (Randolph), they always overshine us, especially in publicity. Adding this (basketball title), finally gets us some.
“We like it here. We feed off that. That’s why I like being here.”
For the past few weeks, he has been one of the leading players for Post 81. It’s his first season with the team, though it didn’t take long for coach Nate Cockman to be thankful for that development.
“Getting Luke was huge,” Cockman said, listing many intangibles that Thomas’ presence provides and noting the boost for Post 81 in attracting such a well-regarded athlete.
Of course, the foundation for this came at Providence Grove.
By the time Thomas was a junior, his roles had been more defined in terms of leadership.
“I don’t have any regrets. I’m at peace,” he said. “The best part is probably the friends I made throughout playing these sports. You learn as you’re doing it, especially when you’re older. It got easier because people there you get to know and they care about you.”
There will be a shifting of gears when he arrives at UNCG. But that doesn’t mean he’ll be slowing down after this juggling act at Providence Grove.
“I’m glad I played three because it could only help me,” he said. “It will be nice to focus on one sport now.”