Most high school seniors are 18 years old — essentially adults by the time they’ve finished up their prep studies.
IImar’I Thomas, a four-year starter for Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory and defending West Catholic Athletic League Co-Player of the Year, won’t hit that magic number for quite some time. In fact, the 6-foot-1 senior just celebrated her 16th birthday.
“I skipped second grade,” said Thomas, who turned 16 on Oct. 23. “So, yeah, I’m a bit of a young one.”
Belying her relative youthfulness, Thomas is the undisputed leader of the Fightin’ Irish, who’ve navigated a typically-brutal nonconference schedule to a 4-2 start, despite injuries to some key players.
Thomas has seen it all during her decorated four-year career at Sacred Heart. She led the squad to the Division III State Championship last year, averaging 24 points and 12 rebounds a game for a squad that featured just two seniors who played regularly. During her freshman year, Sacred Heart captured a share of the WCAL title, and her sophomore season saw the team advance to the semifinals of the NorCal Open Division Playoffs — the state’s highest level of competition.
Over that time, Thomas’ game has evolved. When she arrived at Sacred Heart (as a 12-year-old freshman), she was a skilled, but unpolished post player. During her sophomore year, she gravitated more to the perimeter, and over the past two seasons, she’s been a five-position dynamo, equally capable of running the point as she is dominating down low. That versatility is a perfect fit for the Fightin’ Irish style of play, which is predicated on a frenetically-paced, full court defense and an up-tempo offense.
“I think it’s really important for us to all be interchangeable,” said Thomas, who will be attending the University of Cincinnati next year on a basketball scholarship. “If we can switch on screens and trap and press equally well, we’re really tough to beat.”
Additionally, Thomas has transformed into a lockdown defender, taking on the toughest assignments each night while still carrying the load offensively for the Fightin’ Irish. She’s the only member of the team averaging double figures, with her 22 points per game accounting for more than one-third of the squad’s total scoring output.
She’s taken on a more vocal leadership role as well, providing some inspiration to her teammates, and a little tough love when needed.
“I know it’s my role to be a leader, so I have to be a little outspoken,” said Thomas. “Everyone on the team takes constructive criticism really well. We’re family here — it’s always all good.”
Being the focal point on offense and defense while acting as the emotional lynchpin might sound overwhelming for most players, but Thomas takes everything in stride, said her coach, LyRyan Russell.
“She loves playing basketball — absolutely loves it, so this all comes naturally to her,” said Russell. “She has an amazing basketball IQ, understands that she needs to be a leader, and she knows that we’re relying on her night in and night out. She’s such an easy person to coach. It’s been amazing to see her develop over her four years here.”
Although Thomas’ list of accomplishments at Sacred Heart is plentiful, she still has some unfinished business. The Fightin’ Irish have never claimed an outright league title during her tenure, and they still haven’t captured on Open Division State Title. Thomas plans on claiming both those mantles this season.
“We’ve had some great teams while I’ve been here,” said Thomas. “But we think this one can be very special. We want to get that Open Division title — to be the best, you have to beat the best, and we want to go out and do that. I think it’d be an amazing way to end my career.”