South Carroll senior wrestler Joey Thomas doesn't like to brag about his accomplishments. To many who know him, Thomas is just a typical teenager walking the halls of his high school.
But his reserved demeanor belies his resume on the wrestling mat.
When Thomas ends his high school career in March, he will be considered one of the most accomplished athletes in Maryland history, regardless of sport. He's won two Maryland Public Secondary School state championships, placed third in another and hasn't lost a match since his freshman year.
On Jan. 13, when Thomas pinned Liam Handel from Bullis Prep while competing at 126 pounds, he won his 176th career match, making him the winningest public high school wrestler in state history. Barring an injury or a seismic dip in form, not only will Thomas finish his career with the most wins, but he'll be in first by some distance.
"I think it's more of an accomplishment than winning a state title. It's so hard to even have the opportunity to get there," Thomas said. "I had two state titles under my belt, but compared to those, I think the record is my biggest accomplishment."
That Thomas was able to reach that milestone doesn't shock South Carroll wrestling head coach Bryan Hamper, as the coach is unsure there will ever be another student like Thomas to compete for the Cavaliers' program.
It's quite the statement considering South Carroll has one of the proudest wrestling traditions in Maryland, though the Cavaliers have enjoyed their best run with Thomas on the team. South Carroll has won three straight MPSSAA 2A/1A state championships and, once again, looks to be in the mix to win it this year.
"Joey is one of those kids from day one who came in ready to wrestle and compete for state titles. It's rare for a 14-year-old to come in with that mentality of winning right away," Hamper said. "He sets a high standard and continues to raise it. The thing about Joey is that he brings everyone up with him because everyone tries to mirror him. It's no coincidence we've won state titles every year he's been here. He's been a crucial part of that success."
Wrestling runs in Thomas' family.
His grandfather and father, both also named Joe, were standout prep wrestlers before competing at the collegiate level. The eldest Thomas won an Atlantic Coast Conference championship in 1958 with Maryland, while the second Joe Thomas competed at McDaniel.
Thomas started wrestling in competitions in fourth grade, winning a couple state championship competitions for his age group in fifth grade. That year, he also began to compete at the national level and, as an eighth-grader, placed eighth at the Vaughan Cadet & Junior Nationals freestyle high school championships in Fargo, N.D. -- one of the elite wrestling tournaments in the country.
There was a slight problem when Thomas entered high school though -- he was too slight. Consistently weighing in the range of 88-94 pounds, Thomas would routinely give up a decent amount of weight to opponents while competing in the 106-pound weight class.
Thomas thrived anyway, finishing his season with a 44-4 record and placing third at the MPSSAA state tournament. It was a somewhat disappointing result for Thomas, who had hoped to win a state title that season, but he still credits that year with being one of the most important in his wrestling career.
"Always wrestling at a lighter weight influenced me by boosting my confidence way up," Thomas said. "If I'm beating people who are 20 pounds heavier than me, then I can't expect it being worse when I get to the same weight as them."
To Hamper, wrestling at a much lighter weight than his opponents helped Thomas hone in on his technique.
"Initially in high school, Joey was more of a strategy-type wrestler to avoid getting into difficult positions with heavier wrestlers. Technique-wise, he had to be close to perfect to compete, and he went up another level as a result," Hamper said. "Now when Joey competes, it looks effortless. He flows from move to move, his transitions are excellent."
Thomas didn't have to wait to gain more weight to win a state title, though. During his sophomore season, he won a title in the 106-pound weight class and finished 48-0, all while weighing around 91-96 pounds.
Fitting his personality, Thomas' celebration was subdued.
"I expected to win the state championship, so I didn't really celebrate," Thomas said. "After winning it, I was thinking immediately about getting better because nationals were in two weeks."
Not only has Thomas thrived within Maryland during high school but on the national stage as well; however, he did his best work as a junior. Last year, Thomas placed fourth in the National High School Coaches Association's national tournament in Virginia Beach at the 116-pound weight class. He's also continued to compete at the freestyle national tournament in Fargo, finishing fifth in the 113-pound weight class last year.
That success, plus another undefeated season at 53-0 and a MPSSAA state championship at 113 pounds as a junior, made him a blue-chip college prospect. Thomas eventually landed on University of Pittsburgh, a program that is consistently in the NCAA's top 25 and has a history of producing excellent lightweight wrestlers.
Though the wrestling program was a big component of Thomas' college process, he also looked at the big picture.
"I tried to find the place I was most comfortable with," he said. "I like living in cities, and Pitt offers that. Also, academically, I want to pursue physical therapy, and they have a great program there. I'm definitely excited for the competition element of it. There are no easy matches at D-1, and that's what I enjoy -- wrestling the best."
Thomas also hopes to one day be the best in the country. In college, he hopes to become an All-American and win a national title by his senior year.
To Hamper, the big goals Thomas is setting for himself are within reach.
"He has a ton of potential, and he's going to a program that's going to make him better if he continues to have the mindset of improving every day," Hamper said. "He has the ability to make major waves at a high level in college. I truly believe we haven't seen the best Joey Thomas yet."
Issue 230: February 2017