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Bryce Harper’s high school coach finally makes it to state

Updated May 15, 2019 - 7:57 pm

Last week after Las Vegas High earned its first state baseball tournament berth in more than 40 years, longtime Wildcats coach Sam Thomas received a congratulatory text message on the team bus.

It was from one of his former players.

Kid named Bryce Harper.

“That was one of the best things ever,” Thomas said.

“He was in Kansas City, going back to the hotel. We laughed, he congratulated me. He wanted me to tell the kids how proud he was of them.”

Bryce and older brother Bryan Harper played for Thomas. So did Washington Nationals pitcher Erick Fedde. And Sean Kazmar, who had a cup of big league coffee in San Diego.

Despite coaching those great players and a bunch of really good ones in his 21 years as Las Vegas baseball coach, Sam Thomas had never coached in the state tournament until Wednesday, when the Wildcats defeated Basic 2-0 at Bishop Gorman in a Class 4A game before losing to Reno 8-4.

Which speaks volumes about the quality of baseball in Southern Nevada.

Group comes together

“You can have a great player, two great players, but if your team doesn’t come together as a whole, then you’re not making it,” said Thomas, 53. “Kris Bryant never won a championship, and he was a great player (at Bonanza). You’ve got to have a whole group.”

This season the Wildcats have a whole group.

They were tuning up with one last batting practice Tuesday on a field that is so manicured, the grass so green, that a visitor thought Thomas had installed artificial turf. The last time the visitor had been out to the Las Vegas High diamond was after Bryce Harper had hit a ball that cleared trees on Hollywood Boulevard and came to rest 502 feet from home plate.

Those trees are taller now. The view beyond the center-field fence is just as spectacular. You can’t beat the majestic beauty of Sunrise Mountain for a batter’s eye.

Harper’s name is now on the impressive wrought iron gate that welcomes visitors to the home of the Wildcats, who are playing in their first state tournament since Las Vegas High moved to the eastern edge of the valley from 7th and Bridger downtown — where Thomas began his coaching career.

He wanted the story to be about his players. But having been a former catcher at Valley High when the legendary Rodger Fairless was coaching and the even more legendary Greg Maddux was pitching, he knew where it was going.

He suggested we go to the press box, under the pretense it was cooler up there.

Deflecting praise

Sam Thomas was sporting a floppy hat and a goatee and a deep coat of bronze that did not disguise a long, jagged scar on his right leg. Knee replacement surgery. He has a matching one on the left side. Two of the hazards of having been a catcher.

There was a framed photo of the Harpers and Fedde and Kazmar, wearing major league uniforms, on the back wall. On the front wall was an homage to the great Roberto Clemente, for Sam Thomas grew up a Pittsburgh Pirates fan. On a side wall, fungo bats were hung with care, like stockings on a chimney during Christmas.

Thomas reluctantly talked about himself. He has won more than 400 games coaching high school baseball, but kept trying to deflect praise on those he believes deserve it more: Bryce Harper; his players; Tina, a librarian at the school and his wife of 28 years; their kids. His father, who introduced him to baseball.

Charlie Thomas, 82, had 51s season tickets and anted up to keep them for the Aviators. First base side. Great place for a father and son to chat about Willie, Mickey and The Duke.

“What we do as a coaching staff is merely make suggestions,” Thomas said while sipping Diet Pepsi from a plastic foam tub. “I can sit there all day and call the hit and run. If a kid swings and misses and we get thrown out at second, then I’ll take responsibility. Bad call. But if they execute it right, that’s all on them.”

Down on the emerald field, batting practice was winding down. Sam Thomas asked again if he could send up a couple of his players. He sent up two, seniors Nate Freimuth and Danny Jimenez.

That’s another way you can tell the really good coaches, the ones who pile up a mountain of wins and a molehill of losses, the teachers and molders of young men who don’t measure success by championships won and state tournament berths earned.

Even when the story is about them, they try to make it about the kids.

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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