It was the first round of the playoffs and Ian Thomas' Franklin Indians were in a scoreless dogfight with the Poly Engineers. After struggling to move the ball offensively, Franklin finally penetrated the Poly 20-yard line late in the second quarter. Sensing a prime scoring opportunity, the Indians called on Thomas, their 6-foot-3 sophomore wide receiver. Thomas was about to make a career-defining play.
On first down from the Engineers' 17, Indians quarterback Joey Dorsey saw Thomas matched up with a smaller Poly cornerback. Bingo.
Dorsey took a three-step drop and lofted a high, arching pass in the end zone. Thomas stutter-stepped, blew by his man and ran full-tilt in pursuit of the ball. But a safety closed in, leaping to knock the pass away. Thomas, however, extended over the defender, using every inch of his 6-3 frame. He snatched the ball out of the air and tumbled to the turf while the safety and cornerback furiously swiped at his hands. Thomas held on for the touchdown, which turned out to be the decisive score in Franklin's nail-biting 10-8 victory.
"That was the sickest catch I've seen," said Franklin running back Zach Silverberg. "It was nasty."
Franklin coach Anthony Burgos agreed.
"That was one o the best plays I've seen on the high school level," he said. "He just went up and got that ball; there were a few times last year where we said, 'OK we're just going to throw it up to him.' And he would go up and make a play."
Thomas has been making plays since his freshman year. He spent exactly four weeks on jayvee before his skills proved too much for the competition. Recognizing Thomas' unlimited potential, Burgos brought him up to varsity and inserted him at defensive back. Thomas excelled, recording a team-leading four interceptions.
But Thomas still had plenty of work to do. For one, he needed to add muscle. Corn stalks were thicker than the tall, skinny freshman from Baltimore. Secondly, his hands didn't exactly remind coaches of Jerry Rice, despite the four picks.
"I had to put in plenty of hard work," Thomas said. "I wanted to get better and be the best player I could possibly be. I'm so dedicated to the sport and I love everything about it. So I hit the weights, watched film and worked out every day. "
Thomas' lifting routine helped him bulk up to 170 pounds. Then after his team's grueling summer workouts, he put in extra time with the jug machine, which fired passes like Brett Favre. On top of that, he worked out with other elite receivers in Maryland, namely Adrian Coxson (Penn State) from City. By the end of the summer, Thomas looked ready to wreak havoc on Baltimore County secondaries.
"He came into this season and he was fourth on our depth chart at wide receiver," Burgos said. "But he showed so much progress from his freshman to his sophomore year that he became our No. 1 guy."
Using his newfound strength, honed hands, precise route running and sub 4.6 speed, Thomas became a reliable wide receiver in addition to a shutdown corner. He finished with 18 catches for 450 yards and four touchdowns in a run-heavy offense.
Thomas excelled in running stop routes, where he'd sprint straight at an opposing cornerback, fake a fly route, turn around, and catch a 10-yard dart. Then, when the corners began to jam him, Thomas would run a deep post, torching them for big gains. One such play came in Week 3 against Woodlawn.
Franklin had the ball inside Woodlawn territory trailing 20-14 with 30 seconds remaining in the game. On third down, Burgos called for a pass to Thomas.
"It was an 'X Fade' and Joey [Dorsey] put the ball right where it needed to be," Thomas said. "I beat my man, caught the ball in stride and scored the touchdown. That was it - we won the game."
Burgos is expecting more of the same from his No. 1 wide receiver next year. Not only does he want Thomas to improve his technique and speed, but he's also looking for him to take on a greater leadership role.
"Next year he has a chance to be a captain for us," Burgos said. "He works extremely hard and he's shown tremendous leadership on and off the field."
In the meantime, Thomas will put himself through another rigorous offseason workout regimen. Other than adding more muscle mass, there are at least two areas he wants to improve: speed and blocking.
"When I run [40-yard dashes] I need to start using my hands more - get my arms pumping -- and I can be a 4.4, 4.5 guy," Thomas said. "And I want to improve my run blocking so I can help spring my running back for an extra 10 yards. It will make me a more complete receiver."
Burgos has already started to hear whispers from Division I recruiters who are scouting his prize receiver. Thomas admits he'd like nothing better than to play big-time college football like his workout partner, Coxson.
"I think I can be just as good as [Coxson]," said Thomas, who will attend multiple camps and combines this offseason. "I'm talking four-star, maybe even five-star status. I just want to fulfill my potential and I hope to be the best."