by Liz Lizama
The George Mason High School girls varsity basketball 2014-15 season ended last Tuesday after falling 46-56 to Robert E. Lee High School of Staunton in the Virginia High School League’s 2A East regional tournament. While Mason was eliminated in the first round, the girls program is no stranger to winning and has seen much success under head coach LaBryan Thomas, who announced at the beginning of the season that it would be his last year.
The Lady Mustangs earned the No. 2 seed for Conference 35 with an overall 18-6 record this season. “The girls program has not had a losing season for 24 years, and Coach T has been a huge part of it,” assistant coach Lori LaFave said.
Thomas, originally from Pensacola, Fl., began playing basketball at the age of 5 and continued the sport through his time in the U.S. Army where he coached recreational league. His last tour in the military brought him to Fort Belvoir after which he decided to stay in Northern Virginia. Shortly after, he began working for the City of Falls Church in the community center, and so he began coaching the recreational league.
In 1998, Chris Madison, then head coach of Mason’s girls varsity basketball team and recreation coordinator for the city, offered Thomas an opportunity to serve as assistant coach for the high school girls junior varsity team. It was not long before Thomas took over as head coach. Two years later in 2002, he then took his talent to the boys program and served as head coach of the junior varsity team until 2006 when he returned to the girls junior varsity squad. He then assumed the head coach position of the girls varsity program in 2008.
Under Thomas’ leadership, the Lady Mustangs have gone 159-34 over the past seven seasons and reached the VHSL 2A Group semifinals five times, resulting in three state championships in 2009, 2010 and 2012.
The first state championship win was special for Thomas not only because it was his first year as varsity head coach and Mason’s first since 1998, but his daughter Chantal Thomas was a junior on the team. “We had great talent on the team plus my daughter,” he said of what was one of his most memorable moments coaching for Mason.
The state title did not come easy for the father-daughter duo though. “It was a challenge,” he said. “ Living in the same household, you try not to bring basketball home. We had an understanding that basketball stayed in the gym. We didn’t try to discuss at home, especially when we had a bad game.”
Upon graduating, Chantal Thomas and teammate Nicole Mitchell went on to play Division III basketball at Christopher Newport University. Mitchell, now a Graduate Assistant at Hood College in Frederick, Md. coaches the women’s basketball team there. “I have definitely derived some of my coaching style from Coach T,” she said. “Coach T is more than a basketball coach. He is a friend, mentor and inspiration.”
Former Mustang player, Stephanie Cheney, who played for Thomas from 2009-2013 and then continued on to play for the University of Pennsylvania, echoed those sentiments. “Being a coach was more than just on the court,” she said. Thomas would help with college applications and acted as a mentor for the players on and off the court.
While Cheney said winning the state championship her freshman year in 2010 was memorable, the state championship finals in 2012 stood out most. Cheney fouled out with 4:23 minutes remaining. Devastated, she said she ran off the court crying while Thomas remained calm and was the stability she needed in that moment. Although she of course wanted to play, she said she was proud to watch her teammates clinch the state title.
Mason senior forward Katie Goodwin recalls that 2012 championship game when she was just a freshman. “I had to go in, and I remember as she [Cheney] fouled out, he [Thomas] pulled me over and said, ‘I believe in you, this team believes in you, go out there and show them what you got.’” Mason ended up winning 50-47 against Gate City High School. “Him believing in me as a freshman and going out at VCU, which is scary to begin with, is something I will never forget,” she said.
Thomas says his coaching style is more focused on defense. “If you can play strong defense, you can stop people from scoring,” he said. “As I was always told, defense wins championships.” His approach has certainly proved fruitful as the team’s three state championships demonstrate.
Thomas’ efforts have also earned him recognition as the District Coach of the Year three times, All-State Coach of the Year in 2012 and the Washington Post’s All-Met Girls Basketball Coach of the Year in 2013.
While Goodwin graduates this year, she said she will miss the family aspect. “Even as new girls came in and others left, we were still a family. He emphasized we had to be one and had to have each other’s back.”
His love for basketball showed in practice and also motivated players like Cheney. “He made me want to come to practice and was a huge part of my life at Mason,” she said.