Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

BAINBRIDGE -- Mandy Omara remembers April Thomas' first race like it was yesterday.

The Bainbridge girls and boys cross country coach said she was nervous for Thomas, a basketball player all her life who had never tried the sport before.

"I knew she was athletic, and everyone had told me she would be a good runner, but she had never tried it, so I didn't know what would happen," Omara said. "But when she hit that course for the first time, she blew everyone away."

It was the eight-team Godby Invitational in Tallahassee, Fla., and Thomas -- this year's Herald Player of the Year for girls cross country after winning her second consecutive Region 1-AAAA title -- was just a sophomore.

"After the first mile, she was in the lead and I thought, 'No way she can keep this up," Omara recalled. "Then after the second mile, she was still at the front and I couldn't believe it. She finished third out of, like, 50 runners. We were all just floored."

In the past two years, Thomas has continued to floor her coach, her team -- and her opponents.

The longtime hoops star for the Lady Bearcats -- who only took up running "to stay in shape for basketball and track," she said -- admits these days that she really didn't enjoy the sport at first.

Winning, of course, cured that.

"I don't really know anyone who really likes to run," laughed Thomas, who had the fastest time of any female runner this year in Southwest Georgia in the 5K with a 19:30. "I mean, it's hard work. I just did it to stay in shape for basketball and track and I guess I just started to get better and better. Of course, once I started winning, I have to admit I did start (warming up to it)."

Thomas, now a junior, won seven of nine races she competed in this past season, including the region championship. But after a 13th place finish in state as a sophomore, Thomas fell ill during this year's state meet and was none too pleased with her low finish.

"I try to do my best every year," Thomas began, "but that race was not my best."

Omara agreed.

"Looking at her finishing time in the region meet, she would've finished in the Top 10 in state had she been feeling well and not cramping," the coach said. "But she's just a junior and I know after a bad race like that, she's more determined than ever to (avenge that) next year."

Omara said she heard about Thomas' running talent from the Lady Bearcats' track coach via an e-mail.

"He said, 'You should really look into getting her on your team,' " Omara recalled. "So I asked around about her to some of the other kids, and they were like, 'Oh yeah -- go get her. We need her.' So I went to her, pulled her aside and asked her to come and try it for two weeks, and if she didn't like it, there were no strings attached."

So Thomas came out and gave cross country a whirl, needing very little direction from the outset, Omara said.

"She was just such a natural," Omara said. "And to put in perspective how much better she was than everyone else -- even in her very first race -- we had a senior, Frankie Warren, who had pretty much dominated our team for years when April came.

"And in their first race together, April beat Frankie by over a minute. I was flabbergasted."

In track, Thomas is an 800-meter and one-mile specialist, but had never attempted the rough and hilly terrain of a cross country course before her sophomore season.

Now, she's a two-time region champ -- with aspirations for more.

"Winning region twice was exciting," she said. "But I want to make it three before I leave."

Where she goes next, however, is up to her.

With colleges looking her direction because of her basketball talent, she wants to pursue her hardwood aspirations first, but maybe eventually become a two-sport athlete on the collegiate level.

"I've played basketball pretty much since as long as I can remember, so it's my first love and that's always been my major sport," she said, before hesitating and adding: "But I'm not against going after a running scholarship."

Omara, for one, would love to see that happen.

"I don't think we've had a runner of her caliber come out of this school," she said. "Her and basketball, I know -- it's her first love. But the level she's at, I would love to be talking about her

(shining) in college one day, too."