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Junior guard makes the big shots
By Jeff Febus

In the the case of Jill Thomas, a loss in a high school district basketball final turned out to be Calvin’s gain. As a senior guard on the West Catholic High School girls basketball team, Thomas was recruited heavily by Calvin women’s basketball coach John Ross. Thomas was considering Calvin but also considering other schools with the thought of not continuing her basketball career beyond high school.

When her West Catholic team lost a hard-fought decision to arch-rival Grand Rapids Catholic Central in the district final of the Michigan High School State Tournament, Thomas’ mindset was cemented.

“It (the loss) left a bad taste in my mouth,” said Thomas. “I didn’t want my basketball career to end like that. I wanted to keep on playing and that really pushed me in making my decision to come to Calvin.”

Gaining the confidence to compete at the collegiate level was a process however. As a freshman, Thomas appeared in 25 of Calvin’s 26 games as a reserve, averaging just under three points a game. She then appeared in all 29 games as a sophomore on a Calvin squad that finished 24-5 overall and reached the NCAA III Tournament for the first time in three years. Thomas averaged just over three points a game and connected on 23 three-point field goals during the year.

Her teammates recognized her potential—particularly the departing senior class which included Amber Benthem, Emily Ottenhoff and Brook Van Eck. “The seniors took me aside during the year and told me not to settle for being a player off the bench,” said Thomas. “They told me that four years goes by extremely fast and not to waste a moment trying to get better.”

Thomas took the advice to heart, working feverishly during the off-season. “Jill really made a commitment to her strength and conditioning in the off-season,” said Ross. “When she came back in the fall, she was a vastly improved player.”

Knowing that three starting spots, vacated by the graduating seniors, were there for the taking also provided motivation, said Thomas.

She grabbed one of those starting spots at shooting guard and started in all 30 games, averaging 5.3 points a game while connecting on 41 three-pointers—the second-highest total on the Calvin team. She also led Calvin in three-point attempts (119) behind strong encouragement from her teammates. “Coach Ross had been encouraging me to shoot more, but my teammates encouraged me to do that this year as well,” said Thomas. “That helped me turn the page as a player. When you have the full support of your teammates, it makes a huge difference in your confidence.”

Thomas saved her best performances for the big games. In a 69-59 upset win over then fifth-ranked Carthage College, she scored a career-high 17 points including four three-pointers. On January 18, she scored 11 points in a 56-55 upset win over top-ranked Hope at Van Noord Arena including a 40-foot threepoint shot just before the halftime buzzer that gave Calvin a 29-20 halftime lead. In the MIAA tournament championship game, she came up with one of the biggest shots in Calvin women’s basketball history (read the story and watch the video), drilling a three-point shot from the left wing at the buzzer to lift the Knights to a thrilling 67-65 win and an automatic bid to the NCAA III Tournament.

According to Ross, the game-winning shot was part of the development of Thomas as a player. “Jill developed so much confidence this year and that was evident in that game-winning shot against Hope,” he said. “She became a vocal leader for our team, and our players really responded to her. Her leadership was a big plus for our team.”

Away from the court, Thomas is a biology major with plans to attend graduate school to become a physician’s assistant. When asked about her academic experience, Thomas replied that it was much like her experience on the basketball court. “You have to work hard as a Calvin student and push yourself, but that is a good thing,” she said. “When you are forced to work for something, it makes you appreciate it all that much more.”

Thomas also appreciates the different perspectives that Calvin provides with its student body. “One of the things I’ve enjoyed at Calvin is getting to know students who come from all around the world,” she said. “I’ve learned many different perspectives, which has helped me grow as a person.”