If there were ever any doubts that Eric Thomas would become the finest basketball player in the history of Rio Mesa High, the uncertainty lasted only about two hours.
In the season opener against St. Bernard four years ago, Thomas scored 31 points and grabbed 16 rebounds to lead the Spartans to an upset victory in the opening round of the Beverly Hills tournament. More impressive than the win or the personal performance was the fact that Thomas was a freshman.
"Of all the games I've played here, that one really sticks out," said Thomas, now a senior. "That still is one of my best games. I was so emotionally high that night.
"It's obviously hard to maintain that intensity every game. A lot of people wondered if I could maintain that level of play for four years."
The doubters were quickly silenced, and Thomas has gone on to become the school's all-time leading scorer (1,715 points) and rebounder (682). Early in his junior year, he broke Ivan Verberckt's scoring record of 946 points set from 1980-82. It took him another year to eclipse the rebound mark of 553 that Reggie Dixon established from 1971-74.
But as a rare four-year starter, Thomas' marks are certain to have a long stay in the record book. And the area isn't likely to have a player win all-county honors four years in a row the way Thomas has any time soon, either.
"Eric wasn't your typical freshman," said Rio Mesa Coach Steve Wolf, in his sixth year at the school. "He was very mature and very intelligent. I had no second-guessing when I decided to start him. I talked it over with him and his parents and they all agreed he was ready.
"Obviously, it was a smart decision. He progressed every year into one of the finest basketball players to ever play in this area. It's been a real pleasure to coach him."
Thomas, a 6-foot-6 1/2 guard/forward, signed a letter of intent with the University of New Mexico in November. He was actively recruited by two dozen Division I schools, including USC, Stanford and Utah. He will play guard for the Lobos.
Although Thomas is relatively shy and quiet, he said he is not surprised by his success. Since his days in junior high summer leagues, Thomas knew he could make an immediate impact when he got to high school.
Coach Wolf was well aware of Thomas' abilities and guaranteed him playing time as a freshman. But he didn't promise a starting job.
"That I had to earn," Thomas said. "I was 15 at the time, but I knew I could do it. What made it so easy was that I was accepted by the whole team, so the transition was relatively smooth. There wasn't the jealousy one might have expected."
If there was animosity toward the hotshot freshman, the murmurs quickly turned to cheers as Thomas built averages of 19 points and nine rebounds a game. The Spartans finished a respectable fourth in league.
There still were those who wondered if Thomas' fairy-tale season was just that. And even Thomas himself started worrying that he set a precedent he couldn't repeat.
"Some of the local papers were writing that I would be part of the freshman jinx and never live up to my reputation," Thomas recalled. "All the talk got me thinking. But I knew that what I started was only the beginning. I knew I would get bigger and stronger and better every season."
Thomas duplicated his freshman statistics, leading the team with averages of 19 points and nine rebounds again his sophomore season. Rio Mesa tied Ventura for third place in the league but lost a tie breaker for a playoff berth.
Rio Mesa changed its offense last year, allowing Thomas to move more frequently from his established forward position to an off-guard. Under constant defensive pressure, he maintained his averages of 19 points and nine rebounds and received all-county honors again. Rio Mesa won the league title but lost to Artesia in overtime, 56-54, in the quarterfinals of the 4-A Division playoffs.
Thomas was the lone underclassman on last year's team, leaving him a lofty goal for improvement as a senior. He averages 22 points and 10 rebounds, but Rio Mesa struggled and finished fourth in the league with an overall record of 12-14. It received an at-large berth in the 4-A playoffs and defeated Righetti, 56-46, Tuesday in the first round.
"I look back on this season and there are a lot of 'What ifs," Thomas said. "We were so close in so many of our games, that we easily could have finished first or second in the league.
"I'm disappointed that we haven't done more in the playoffs since I've been here. Really, all the records and recognition don't mean that much compared to a CIF title. That's what you play the game for. We haven't done bad, but I wish it could have been a little better."
And that isn't the only thorn in Thomas' side. Although he is without a doubt the best player to come out of the school, he has been overshadowed in Ventura County, in his freshman and sophomore years by Don MacLean of Simi Valley and the past two years by Shon Tarver of Santa Clara.