Photos by Rick Nation
LITTLE ROCK — Gifted with tremendous speed, hiccup quickness, extraordinary vision and the uncanny ability to make people miss. He’s also big and strong enough to move the pile.
On Wednesday night at Roy Davis Field at Catholic High School, Thomas rushed 25 times for a whopping 265 yards and five touchdowns — both may be school records — adding a couple of pass completions for 38 more yards. That’s 303 yards of offense in a game with eight-minute quarters.
Of course, he didn’t — and couldn’t — do it alone. Logan Burton, Josh Salguerio, Josh Stevens, Logan Reed, Blaise Smith and K.J. Terry on the offensive line helped clear the way and, often, with the help of defensive standouts Patrick Karp and Jakob Neel providing a “jumbo” package that started out as a short-yardage alignment and has evolved into an every-play alignment on some drives.
And you’ve got to keep the other team from going up and down the field when the offense is on the sideline. The Hornets shut out the Rockets in the second half.
The Hornets, now 5-1 overall and 4-1 in the Central Arkansas Junior High Conference, scored on their first four series of the first half and the defense added a touchdown on Xavion Jackson’s scoop-and-score. They also cashed in on their only two drives of the second half. That’s six of seven possessions in the game.
On the opening drive, a pair of runs by Tyler O’Neal helped pick up the initial first down. His extra effort enabled the Hornets to convert on third down.
That helped take some of the attention off Thomas, of whom the Rockets and the rest of the conference are fully aware.
But on Thomas’ second keeper of the game, he broke loose for 53 yards to set up his 3-yard run for the first score. Utilizing the swinging gate formation, the Hornets added a two-point conversion on Jaylon Dickson’s pass to Neel.
In turn, the Rockets got a strong return of the kickoff by Will Plafcan. Only a shoestring tackle by Jake Wright prevented a huge return. As it was, the Rockets set up on offense at their own 32 and a second-down pass completion from quarterback Cooper Monroe to Plafcan contributed to their initial first down. A couple of snaps later, Monroe threw to Nick Gonzales for a short gain before he fumbled and Jackson came up with the ball at the 44, returning it for a touchdown. Martin Ramirez kicked the extra point and it was 15-0 with three minutes still to play in the first quarter.
Catholic answered, aided by an illegal participation penalty and fueled by Monroe’s 39-yard completion to Plafcan, they reached the 15. On a third-down there, Monroe found Lawson Tiffee on a slant route for the touchdown. Kicker Jake Schneider made it 15-7.
Thomas carried on eight consecutive snaps, often running behind Neel, Salguerio and Karp, to account for 75 yards of the scoring drive that came in response to Catholic’s TD. A 20-yard burst was the big play of the march. A 12-yard gashing capped it off.
Ramirez added the extra point even though it was 5 yards further back due to a penalty.
Three plays into Catholic’s next series, Reed Waters fumbled after catching a 13-yard pass from Monroe. Andrew Hayes recovered at the Rockets’ 25. Six plays later, the Hornets had 30 points. The Rockets played tough defense but Thomas eventually scored from the 1 after he’d converted a fourth-and-1 at the 15, with a 10-yard keeper.
Again in the swinging gate, Dickson threw to Wright for the conversion and it was 30-7 with 2:47 left in the half.
The defense got the ball back five plays into the Rockets’ next series, stopping a swing pass for a gain of 4 when 10 yards was needed on a fourth down.
In turn, the Hornets, with 1:25 left, went three-and-out. The faked a punt but Logan Grant was stopped short of the first down and Catholic took over just 36 yards away from paydirt. Though they had just 37 seconds, the Rockets had all three timeouts.
And they used them all. The second one came right before a 29-yard pass from Monroe (under heavy pressure from Alex White and Wyatt Hoyt among others) to running back Sammie Johnson. He was tackled at the 1 but the Rockets got a timeout with :01 showing. On the last play of the half, Johnson just got into the end zone for a touchdown. Schneider added the extra point and it was 30-14 at the half.
And the Rockets were set to get the ball to start the third quarter.
Mixing the passing of Monroe with the running of Johnson, they drove to the Bryant 42. From there, however, they were unable to move it. On a second-and-2, running back Jake McNiel was brought down for no gain by Neel. On third-and- 2, Salguerio and O’Neal dropped Johnson for a loss.
On fourth-and-3, the Rockets went for broke. Plafcan got behind the defense but Monroe’s pass went beyond his receiver’s reach and the Hornets took over on downs.
Catholic forced a fourth-and-5 at the Bryant 48 but Thomas followed the blocking and powered for 11 yards to convert. Moments later, the Hornets faced a third-and-10 at the Rockets’ 41. For just the third time all night, Thomas went to the air. The Rockets lost track of Terry from his tight end spot and he hauled down a pass, carrying to the 12.
Again, the Hornets were forced into a fourth-down situation but Thomas found a hole and scored despite being hit at the goal line.
That put Bryant up 36-14 with 7:21 still to play.
A 52-yard run by Johnson put Catholic in position to cut into the margin. Hayes and a hustling Michael Chatman, a defensive end, brought Johnson down at the Bryant 35, saving a touchdown.
A 17-yard scramble by Monroe kept the drive alive. They reached the 8 where they faced a fourth-and-1. Johnson got stuffed and the Hornets had held.
Thomas escaped for a 28-yard run and when a late hit out of bounds was marked off against the Rockets, the Hornets were within 29 yards of another touchdown. Thomas, making a tremendous cut that helped him pick up extra blockers, covered it in one run to set the final scored with 2:27 to go.
Reserves for both teams finished up from there.
After playing four of their six games on the road so far this season, the Hornets will be at home three weeks in a row now. They’ll play Russellville next on Thursday, Oct. 15.