It has only been half an hour after the final bell rang, and the students have pushed out the exit of Cedar Shoals High School. The campus is void of life, and in the gym head boys basketball coach L’Dreco Thomas patiently awaits the arrival of his team, whistle on standby.
The balls roll onto the court and all hoops are lowered to be put to use as the team goes through passing and communication drills. The gym horn blows and the team goes straight into a warm-up drill, Coach Thomas at the helm directing his players and demanding intensity.
“What I expect from my players is focus and effort. I want them to be attentive and understand in these drills what they are trying to accomplish,” Thomas said.
Having played football at Cedar himself, Coach Thomas teaches his team the values of supporting each other, effort and education. Thomas challenges his players to be at their best on and off the paint.
“What I want with any team is support. The younger players always tend to look up to the leaders on the team and ask questions, and you want to be humble and wait for your turn. So what I try to express to all of my players is that the little things that it takes to be on the team are important,” Coach Thomas said. “It’s important to encourage and help each other do the little things the right way so that you don’t do the big things the wrong way.”
Associate varsity boys coach Grant Moro has spent 15 years working with Coach Thomas, both starting off their careers at Cedar with the girls basketball program. During this time, many of Thomas’ ideals have influenced Moro.
“Since he took over the head basketball job he’s had high expectations for player behavior, both on and off the court. He holds the team accountable and teaches them important life lessons like communication and being on time. Our culture is one of having high standards and expecting our young men to meet that,” Moro said.
Though the basketball program is off to a 24-3 start headed into the postseason, Coach Thomas still strives to provide his student-athletes more opportunities to go to college and find a job after high school.
Because of his strong connections to his student body, many of Coach Thomas’ former students and players often come back just to simply hold a conversation with their mentor and friend.
Jeffrey Burton, head coach of the Hilsman Middle School basketball team, is one of Thomas’ former players, now working as an assistant coach for the junior varsity and varsity basketball teams at Cedar.
“When I first met him I wasn’t really the best student,” Burton said, laughing. “Along the way, he helped get me to a better position grade wise, and looking back, I don’t think I would be where I am if it wasn’t for him being a caring person.”
After graduating from Cedar in 2009, Burton went on to play basketball at Anderson University and Gordon State College graduating with a degree in physical education, later moving back to Clarke County to take on his dreams of becoming a coach.
“I tried my best to stay away from Cedar due to their success. I wanted to work through my own failures and working with a state runner-up team I felt wouldn’t be the best for my experiences as a new Coach. Unfortunately, all the schools I contacted were full on staff. Instead of giving up, I met with Coach Thomas and he helped me get the opportunity to coach over at Hilsman and later become a coach at Cedar,” Burton said.
Early in his coaching career, Thomas was already being challenged and faced hardships that would drive him toward success. Thomas’ father, working through many successful jobs and most known for helping others with early retirement, passed away in 2011.
“When I got the job, my dad had just been diagnosed with stage four liver cancer. He would often tell me he didn’t want me to give up on my football dreams. But I told him I wanted to pursue it (basketball) and he gave me his blessing,” Thomas said.
Unfortunately, his father passed away before the season started.
“He never got to see me coach again, which was hard. After that I just wanted to make him and my family proud,” Thomas said, “It’s what has driven me over the years, and I want to be good at what I do, but I (also) want the kids to be the best they can be.”
5’6” sophomore Kashik Brown tried out for the basketball team as a freshman. He did not expect Coach Thomas’ invitation to join the varsity team.
“I was a little surprised to be honest. Coach Thomas came up to me and told me why I was on varsity. I felt like he saw a different side of me. Size doesn’t mean anything. It’s always heart over height,” Brown said.
After making the decision to return to Cedar for his senior year over Core 4, an elite private basketball academy located in Atlanta run by former Atlanta Hawk Paul Milsap, senior forward Quincy Canty was excited to return to Cedar and practice under Coach Thomas.
“One thing that he taught us that I really think a lot about is that everything you get isn’t given to you; it’s earned,” Canty said. “You have to work hard and give everything you got. Nothing is going to be handed to you so you have to go get it.”
Currently, Coach Thomas has led the Jags through a successful record dominating 5-A region 8 with a region record of 9-1, losing only to Buford (73-49) and Archer High (58- 43) in the regular season before falling again to Buford in the region championship. Maxpreps currently ranks the Jaguars as the 19th best team in the state with a record of 24-3. With all eyes on Thomas’ team, the key to the Jags’ success comes in the leadership of the players and their reliance on one another rather than solely on their coach.
“During games most times when we’re down I’ll just stand and watch my team. You want to see if they can figure it out, and it’s taking a big risk when you do that. I don’t want it to always have to be a situation where they go and look at me. I want one of my guys to step up and be a leader in that situation. I want to see if my kids can handle adversity on their own. That’s what makes us improve together,” Thomas said.