Michigan's leading man: Thomas takes charge

Thursday, March 15, 2018 - 7:59pm

Thomas broke out as one of the country’s premier second basemen in his sophomore campaign, leading the Big Ten in both batting average and on-base percentage.

Thomas broke out as one of the country’s premier second basemen in his sophomore campaign, leading the Big Ten in both batting average and on-base percentage. Buy this photo
Matt Vailliencourt/Daily

Mount Carmel High School was in the midst of a doubleheader and in desperate need for some life.

Enter Ako Thomas.

The year was 2012 and Thomas was a freshman for the Caravan in Chicago, IL and was just beginning his fruitful baseball career.

After not starting on the elite varsity squad at the beginning of the year, Thomas was eventually called up within the first few weeks of the season due to his promising play at the plate.

The young, undersized freshman stepped up and delivered the performance of a lifetime, going 4-for-4. His inspiring performance gave his team the win — and would prove to be the birth of a superstar.

But his hot bat wasn’t the most impressive display of the day.

Stepping onto the infield, Thomas assumed his position at shortstop. A position that typically plays second fiddle to second base for Thomas, he fulfilled his duty well.

Then, on his very first play as a high school varsity baseball player, Thomas was forced to ground an absolute rocket hit by the opposing batter. The ball skipped once on the ground then thudded off his chest. Thomas collected himself and threw the forceout to first. He had laid his body on the line to make a play, and it left a memorable first impression.

“It just shows how much toughness and guts he has,” said Thomas’ high school coach Brian Hurry. “I mean the four hits were impressive, but all that was completely secondary to that play. I thought that play really showed what the kid is all about, internally. To me, it spoke to his competitiveness and his guts more than anything else.”

Added Thomas: “I do whatever it takes for the team, so if that means getting in front of a line drive then I’ll do it.”

His sophomore season, Thomas found himself in a position he would come to know all too well — leadoff hitter. Due in part to his leadership and performance in this spot and at second base, the Caravan won a state championship.

Thomas led another postseason surge his senior campaign, leading his team back to the state championship game. The Caravan would inevitably fall, but Thomas had made a lasting impression as an all-time great Mount Carmel baseball player. Needless to say, Thomas’ time spent at Mount Carmel helped shape him as an athlete, leader and person.

Despite having an older brother who played baseball for a different high school in Chicago, Thomas elected to explore an alternative route — an all-boys Catholic high school.

“I wanted something different in my life,” Thomas said. “I could see where my life was going and I wanted it to change. So I decided to go to Mount Carmel to get away from my neighborhood friends and just explore out, so that’s why I chose to go to Mount Carmel.”

His father, Zebedee, and mother, Reeshemah, have also helped Thomas every step of the way.

“My mom is always the most influential person for me,” Thomas said. “She’s just so hard-working, very independent woman and she just drives me and I just go out here and play for her and for my family.”

Added Michigan coach Erik Bakich: “He’s an inner city Chicago kid, he plays with a ton of energy, a good student from Carmel High School. Good parents — Reeshemah and Zebedee did a great job raising he and his three brothers.

“And he’s just a winner — that’s the word.”

Thomas finished off his time at Mount Carmel with a .397 batting average, .991 fielding percentage and 50 hits in his senior season. These impressive stats found him catching the eye of one program in particular.

Three years later, Thomas finds himself in a similar situation as he bats top of the order for the Wolverines.

Ever since his arrival in Ann Arbor, Thomas has shined bright both on and off the field. His coaches and teammates cannot speak highly enough about the quality of his play and his character. His typical charisma and positive personality consistently inspire everyone surrounding him.

“When I think of some of the greatest compliments a player could have, being a great competitor and being a great teammate are right there at the top,” Hurry said. “He certainly is both of them. Positive energy, he’s always smiling. He kinda lights up a room when he’s around, you just get in a better mood it seems. His attitude was very contagious to our program.”

Aside from bringing energy to the program, Thomas brought a quality of play that saw him starting from day one as a Wolverine.

His freshman year, Thomas accumulated a .258 batting average off 40 hits and cemented himself as an integral part of the Michigan lineup. His proficiency from the plate is not — and has never been — the only noteworthy aspect of his game as he displayed great defensive prowess, an element the Wolverines take pride in.

“It’s always a thrill just to play for Michigan, period,” Thomas said. “And then to be the leadoff hitter is awesome as well, so I’m just gonna continue to do everything I can for the team.”

Thomas then broke out as one of the country’s premier second basemen in his sophomore campaign, leading the Big Ten in both batting average and on-base percentage. Amassing a .354 batting average, he ascended the ranks of the batting order.

Now, Thomas is the definitive leadoff hitter and the Wolverines’ most prolific batter.

Thomas’ efforts this season, however, may come in vain as he seeks to lead his team out of a rebuilding season. It’s no surprise that a squad that lost 15 athletes — 11 of those to the MLB draft — is suffering, with a 4-11 record. It’s incredibly difficult to guide a retool, rather than a rebuild, since many of the new players have yet to adapt to the pace of the college game.

Nevertheless, Thomas is up to the task, willing to do whatever his team needs to get it out of its slump.

“I definitely think and definitely the coaches and my teammates as well, think of me as a leader and a leading figure out there,” Thomas said. “I try my best to be the best vocal leader and just lead by my play as well.”

Added Bakich: “He’ll be one of the guys that will be instrumental in our turn-around this season, and so we’re really looking forward to him taking the reigns and leading by example like he always does.”

Another area where Thomas leads is in his academics, earning Academic Big Ten Honors last year as a sophomore. A practice that began in his days at Mount Carmel, Thomas worked diligently in the classroom and on the field in hopes of acquiring the best degree he could.

“I think he just epitomizes what I want all our players to be,” Hurry said. “He was a true student athlete, he worked hard with his grades, he was relentless in his pursuit of being excellent and the greatest baseball player he could be.”

At Mount Carmel, Thomas’ great play was mirrored by his personality and his academics. He left a legacy of excellence and served as inspiration to his teammates.

At Michigan, Thomas is on a trajectory to do much of the same as Michigan’s leading man. Of course, this is nothing new for him. So when asked about his legacy for the Wolverines, his answer makes sense.

“We’ll see, I’m not sure,” Thomas said. “I’ll try to leave a good one, that’s for sure. I just do whatever I can for the team. Play hard, run hard, just the usual.”