On a cold day in early March 2011, Midwestern basketball fans may turn on their TVs to watch Russell Byrd drain three-point shots for Michigan State, while Deshaun Thomas counters from both inside and out for Ohio State.
If those two perennially strong programs battle it out for Big Ten Conference championships over the next few years, then the foundation of those battles was laid in Fort Wayne on Wednesday, as Byrd and Thomas, as well as several other area athletes, committed to their respective colleges.
“I'm glad that I'm officially going to Ohio State,” Thomas said after signing his national letter of intent in front of an enthusiastic crowd in the Bishop Luers High School gymnasium. “I'm ready to go down there and have my dreams come true.”
The 6-foot-7 Bishop Luers senior is one of six players who signed with the Buckeyes, and it is a recruiting class that many scouting services rank as the best in the nation.
“I am thrilled to add these six young men to the Ohio State basketball family,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said in a news release issued by the university. “These are high-character individuals who bring a culture of winning to our program.”
Thomas, who averaged more than 30 points and 15 rebounds as a junior, has led the Knights to consecutive IHSAA Class 2A state championships and is seeking his third to close out his career.
“It's been a long four years for (Thomas) and he's done a great job,” Todd Hensley said. “I couldn't be more proud of him.”
Hensley, president of Gym Rats Inc. at Spiece Fieldhouse, has been watching Thomas develop since he was 11 and has served as a mentor both on the court, as well as off, to Thomas for several years.
Thomas' coach at Bishop Luers, James Blackmon, has watched his star player improve his basketball skills over the past four years. But it is Thomas' growth off of the court that Blackmon is quick to acknowledge.
“I can think about the times as a freshman when we had all of these distractions (like) being in the (principal's) office and not being on time for class,” Blackmon said of Thomas' earlier trials at Bishop Luers. “Now Deshaun has proved to himself, and to other people, that he can be a good student.”
Since Bishop Luers' most recent grading period, Thomas has boasted of his narrowly missing the honor roll.
Not only do Byrd and Thomas share the distinction of heading to Big Ten programs, but both knew early on what their college preference was. Thomas announced his decision a couple of years ago, while Byrd made up his mind early in his junior year at Blackhawk Christian High School.
“I'm sure, I really am,” Byrd said of his choosing to be a Spartan. “I've been sure for about a year now.”
The 6-foot-8 forward developed a relationship with Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, and that was the predominant factor in his decision.
“I loved coach Izzo and his personality and the way he coaches,” Byrd said. “It's a brotherhood up there, and I can't wait to be a part of it.”
During his junior season, Byrd led the Braves in both scoring (19.1 points per game) and rebounding (8.3).
On the girls side of the sport, another pair of players made their decisions.
Canterbury forward Tabitha Gerardot signed to play at Valparaiso on Wednesday, while Concordia Lutheran guard Andrea Newbauer will sign with Indiana University today.
Gerardot has led the Cavaliers to consecutive IHSAA Class A state championships, but according to her coach Scott Kreiger, she is just as good off the court.
“It wasn't hard to sell (Tabitha),” Kreiger said of getting colleges to show interest in Gerardot. “She's such a terrific student, and she's a great teammate and that was nice to be able to tell the colleges.”
Gerardot, as was Byrd, Newbauer and Thomas, was selected to participate on the prestigious Indiana Junior All-Star squad this past summer.
Other area athletes who signed to compete at the collegiate level include:
• Claire Liles, Canterbury, to play tennis at the University of Indianapolis.
• Mary Kuyvenhoven, DeKalb, to swim at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee.
• Kristy Gerardot, Bishop Luers, to play volleyball at the University of Southern Indiana.
• Molly Richardson, Bishop Dwenger, to play volleyball at Lake Erie College.
• Angie Doerffler, Concordia Lutheran, to play softball at Valparaiso University.