Patriots' big year came out of the blue

March 07, 2002|BY DAN SPEARS

FREDERICK, Md. - Even with all of his court savvy and vision, Thomas Johnson point guard Jermaine Thomas never saw it coming.

Neither did his coach, Tom Dickman - who's probably been through just about everything in 28 seasons with the Patriots.

So if you weren't completely blindsided by the Patriots' 24-1 record, St. James Invitational championship and 14th run to the state semifinals, raise your hand.

You stumped the panel.

"As far as possible, sure it was, but I didn't expect this," said Thomas, who leads the Patriots into tonight's Class 4A semifinals against defending champion Magruder. "But we're back at Cole Field House. And to bring back that title, that's the most important thing."

TJ aims for its eighth state title this weekend with a cast of characters, save Thomas, no one could have predicted one year ago. The Patriots lost seven of their top 10 players from last season's Class 3A runner-up, but a bevy of transfers - "They always seem to leave, but never come in until this year," Dickman said earlier this season - have jelled into a defensive machine that occasionally shoots the lights out.


"Going in we had no idea what we had," Dickman said. "They didn't know me, I didn't know them. They probably wondered what I was doing, and it took awhile for that comfort level."

The Patriots got a sobering look at how good they really could be during a Christmas tournament in Binghamton, N.Y. TJ demolished teams from Kentucky and Georgia before losing in the final to Mt. Vernon (N.Y.) by two points in overtime.

That Mt. Vernon team? It's only ranked No. 4 in New York state's largest class.

"We played some good teams real well," Dickman said. "Before, I thought we'd be OK in our conference ... after that, I knew we'd be good in the league. Offensively, we got better and then we're playing for a title at St. James."

The Patriots turned their trip to Washington County into Thomas' coronation as one of TJ's greatest players. He scored 84 points in three games and was named the tournament's most valuable player.

"I know how good he can be, but sometimes he'll do something out there and I'll just shake my head," Dickman said. "This year, he's had nights when guys that physically are his equal match up with him, and they're shaking their head just like me by the end of the night.

"My expectations for him this season were very high. And he's done even better than I could have anticipated."

He tied the school record for points in a game - 51 - on Saturday against Meade in the East region final. The final prep chore comes over the next three days: How to lead a team of playoff-inexperienced players to the promised land.

"We've had a great year," said senior Nate Naylor, a transfer from North Hagerstown. "We won St. James, won the CMC. All we need is a state title just to top it all off."

"I'm not nervous," said Thomas Richard, a junior transfer from Frederick High who's second on the team in scoring. "But I have no idea what to expect."

Thomas does but, in a way, he knows his teammates already have a clue what will happen.

"We've been in plenty of big games already this year," Thomas said with a shrug. "You just treat it like all the others. If we execute, the outcome should be sweet if we do those things."

And while Dickman couldn't have dreamed this at the beginning, he's got the perfect ending all set up.

"I'd love to be out there on Saturday night and taking (Thomas) out with a 10-point lead and five seconds to go in the game," Dickman said. "But there are no guarantees. We know our hands will be full.

"But Jermaine knows what TJ needs to win a title."

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