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Holy Cross Seniors Torey Thomas And Keith Simmons

February 25, 2007 Columns No Comments



Crusaders Have Super Seniors

by Phil Kasiecki

Ralph Willard can’t sing the praises of his two seniors enough. It’s not about their play on the basketball court, although both Keith Simmons and Torey Thomas have had more than their share of success. Rather, where Willard won’t mince words is when speaking of their character.

“I haven’t coached two better people in 37 years of coaching,” said Willard, now in his eighth season as head coach at his alma mater. “I can’t tell you how much those guys are respected and loved by their teammates. There’s no way to even describe it, because you would think I was full of baloney. There is admiration, there is respect, there is love on the part of everybody on this team. They extend themselves into every single person on this team.”

Although there is a noticeable difference in their personalities – Thomas is very outgoing while Simmons is more reserved – the two New York-area guards are practically joined at the hip, and it’s only appropriate. It doesn’t end with being backcourt mates for the last four years on the hardwood. They are good friends, roommates this year, have the same major, and do homework together even when their class schedules are different. For good measure, they were born two days apart, as Thomas informs me after our conversation was interrupted because Senior Night was his birthday and over 30 family and friends came to the game to support the charismatic floor leader. It’s not hard to see what Willard means when he says that “they’re about as close as you can be without being related by blood.”

On several occasions this season, the duo has carried the Crusaders to victory. That has especially been true during times where injuries have thinned out the roster, which has been a constant concern. They’ve had to play major minutes all season, with both averaging over 35 per game. There was the first Bucknell game, where Simmons led the way with 22 points and Thomas sealed the game with a big defensive rebound and two free throws after getting fouled. Another good example is the Lehigh game at home, where Thomas surpassed 1,000 career points and the two combined for 34 points and made many key plays down the stretch.

But there is far more to these two young men than their success on the court. There are reasons Willard can’t stop praising the young men.

Torey Thomas: Go-Getter

Even if he never played a minute of Division I college basketball, you will know Torey Thomas’ name one day. Mark it down.

What is noteworthy about it is that we almost didn’t get to see him playing at this level.

Thomas played at Trinity Catholic in Stamford, Connecticut, a long commute from his home in White Plains, New York. It required getting up very early and taking an express bus to Stamford every morning, a sacrifice he saw as an investment in himself. The school has sent its share of players to Division I over the years, and Thomas is one of them, but that was hardly a foregone conclusion as his senior year came. He stands 5’10”, which didn’t grab the attention of many programs, and didn’t go to camps that would have large Division I coach turnouts. He had only a handful of Division I scholarship offers, notably from a couple of schools in the MAAC as well as Hartford and William & Mary. Even Willard didn’t have much to judge his talent on when he offered him a scholarship; indeed, he made the offer based more than anything on his character and hoped for the best.

“Nobody looked inside his chest and saw how big his heart was,” said Willard. “I couldn’t really tell about his basketball ability. After talking to him for an hour, I said, I’ve got to get this kid. He’s perfect for our basketball program, he’s perfect for Holy Cross.”

Thomas backed up Jave Meade, then another beloved senior guard, as a freshman. He gained a great deal from Meade, one of the best defensive players in the league’s history and a proven winner. Thomas was a second-team All-Patriot League selection last season and led the league in assists. He currently leads the league in that category and steals this season and is certainly in line for another all-league selection.

Assistant coach Andrew Sachs jokes that Thomas is running the campus of Holy Cross, and let’s just say the old clich√© that many a truth is spoke in jest comes to mind. He’s not that far off the mark. Besides his basketball exploits, Thomas has been a resident assistant for three years and has also been the chief of staff for the school’s Black Student Union. In addition, he has reached out to incoming freshmen and their parents. He felt it was his responsibility to not just take advantage of the educational opportunity that his basketball abilities earned him.

“I’ve just developed a great relationship with a lot of people, and I go out with a different source of people,” he reflected. “The obligation is for me to become a whole person when I graduate, and that’s the way it’s got to be.”

The Worcester campus isn’t all that Thomas is running these days. In October 2005, he started the non-profit New York Blaze organization in his hometown of White Plains. He joined it with the YMCA of Central and Northern Westchester and has also had some help from the local school district, which has identified students in need of additional academic support, one of the things the organization offers.

Running the organization is one reason Thomas wants to attend law school when his playing days are over. Although he has an interest in being a criminal defense attorney, his primary reason isn’t for the profession itself as much as what having a law background can do for him as a businessman and in everyday life. He feels it’s a real necessity and can help him take a business that much further.

“If I have the law background that I need, I’ll be able to go into meetings, know my law jargon, and write my contracts,” he noted. “I want to be able to work for myself, not have anybody have to work for me.”

Keith Simmons: Support Is Always There

For Keith Simmons to get this far, nothing came easily. He grew up in Kingston, a small city about 75 miles north of New York City. The city is mostly working class and lower class, and resources were constantly limited. Some schools are over-crowded, there weren’t many activities for kids outside of school, and the public high school, which Keith attended, is regional and thus a big school, where it can be easy to just get lost amidst the many students.

The senior guard is a strong candidate for Patriot League Player of the Year after being a first-team all-league selection the past two seasons. That followed up a selection to the All-Rookie team as a freshman, when he provided instant offense coming off the bench. In an age where a number of players seemingly live and die on the three-point line, Simmons’ judicious shot selection and his hard work show up in the stats: in each of his first three seasons, he shot 42 percent or better from behind the arc. He is shooting 36 percent this season after Wednesday’s game, which certainly isn’t up to the previous three seasons but is hardly a terrible percentage.

Simmons, who chose Holy Cross over a host of MAAC schools, fellow Patriot League member Lehigh and William & Mary, didn’t arrive as a shooter at all. At Kingston High School, Simmons ran the show and was a slasher, playing alongside Siena guard Tay Fisher. That certainly gave him an advantage with his 6’5″ frame, and his time running the show is apparent when you see the decisions he makes even now playing off the ball. He rarely forces something bad and always seems to know when to force the action and when to let the game come to him. Willard describes him as “probably one of the most efficient offensive players I’ve ever coached.”

A down-to-earth young man, Simmons is the last of eight children, a fact that speaks to a constant source of support over the years. He has four older brothers, one of whom played at Division III SUNY-Cobleskill, and he was competitive with all of them growing up. Before college, Simmons wasn’t the best player in his own family, and that’s why he’s amazed at the success he’s had at the college level. He played against his brothers a lot growing up, noting with a laugh that he was “usually on the losing end.” Now they won’t play him anymore, especially the one brother he has never been able to beat – John, who walked out on the court along with Keith and his mother on Senior Night.

His brothers were far more than just competition fodder for him. When he was 14, he lost his father to a sudden heart attack in the latter part of his freshman year of high school. He was very close to his father and knew this would force him to grow up a little faster, but he knows how fortunate he is to have his older siblings. He knew they made it easier for him than it would be if he was an only child or even the oldest.

“It’s funny now because I’m one of the last ones in college. I’ll always be the baby, so the average person might have two parents, but I have like seven or eight,” Simmons says with a laugh. “I have a lot of guidance and I’m blessed to have that.”

Indeed, there was even a silent way in which his siblings all supported him. They all went through the same school system, and as is bound to happen, teachers and other officials picked up a thing or two along the way.

“Having seven brothers and sisters that go through one education system, I wasn’t flying under the radar,” he reflects. “They knew all the tricks my brothers and sisters did.”

His support also included the many school officials in his life, which has inspired his desire to go into education when his basketball playing days are done. He knew the obstacles he faced, and they did a lot to help him out. He would like to do the same, and it’s not surprising considering Willard raves about how caring both he and Thomas are.

Still Work to Do

Both players aren’t finished yet. In fact, they still have at least one more game at the Hart Center since the Crusaders will host at least the quarterfinals of the Patriot League Tournament. A win will get them another home game, and they may get another in the championship game if they are the highest remaining seed. The duo has yet to win a league title, coming close two years ago in a heart-breaking loss to Bucknell.

They knew coming in the kind of tradition the program has, and they’re primed to do their part to keep it going. They’ve already done well with a 79-42 record, but they still want that title.

More importantly, if they never win a Patriot League title, it’s clear that they will be winners in the game of life. Willard is certainly among those who are convinced of that.

“I think you’re judged in life on your body of work, and their body of work has been tremendous in their four years here,” the coach reflected.

     

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