A.J. Thomas of the Pickerington High School Central baseball team doesn't think a bad attitude is what got him briefly demoted to junior varsity halfway through last season.
"Too many things got into my mind," said Thomas, a senior pitcher and third baseman.
"He needed to get back and focus on the things that matter, like his energy, his effort and not worrying about things you can't control -- the umpires, the mound, the weather, all of that," coach Ray Noe said, calling the move a mental reset. "We know he wants to be perfect, but it's baseball. You won't be. Even the best big-league guys only get a hit three out of every 10 times at bat. It might not be your day, but you always have another opportunity the next day. That's the great thing about baseball."
Thomas returned to varsity with a vengeance and has yet to slow down.
He hit a home run in his second game back, batted in the middle of the lineup the rest of the season to help Central to a Division I district runner-up finish and, through 15 games this year, was batting .463 with 19 hits, including three home runs and six more for extra bases.
The 6-foot-2, 205-pound Thomas, who signed with Division II Winston-Salem State in April, has been the Tigers' leadoff hitter most of the season.
"We knew coming into this year that we lost a leadoff guy in (2017 graduate Matt) Walters and we thought A.J. could fill that role. He's been spectacular," Noe said. "He's a tone-setter. He can run and we have big guys hitting behind him like (Trenton) Gillison and (DeWayne) Carter. A.J. has matured into his body and worked very hard in the weight room. He knew he had to put in the time."
Central was 11-7 overall before playing Worthington Kilbourne on May 1 and 9-4 in the OCC-Ohio Division, tied for first place with Lancaster, entering a May 2 game at Grove City.
Noe and Thomas said their relationship was rocky last year but ultimately was straightened out by a long offseason chat that covered everything, from on-field issues to approaches to everyday situations.
"We didn't know how to approach each other. Now we click," Thomas said. "I didn't know coming into this season how much I would like (hitting leadoff) just because it's something I'm not used to because I've been in the 3-, 4- and 5-hole so much, but because I get on base a lot and I'm good at stealing bases, leadoff has fit me well.
"I'm not trying to put the ball out of the park and get a lot of extra-base hits, but I hit the ball well. I push myself. It makes other teams really try to get you out. Singles are good, but the extra (-base hits) are always the best."
Second baseman and pitcher Matt Fullen said Thomas is as much an emotional leader off the field as on.
"He's always making sure the guys are on track and getting their jobs done," Fullen said. "He sparks us. Overall, he gets everybody fired up. He used to be more of a gap-to-gap, line-drive hitter and this year he has picked up his power. He has grown into his role."
Seeded 10th in the 48-team Division I district tournament, the Tigers took a first-round bye and will play host to 24th-seeded Westerville Central or 48th-seeded Whitehall in the second round Wednesday, May 9. The winner advances to a district semifinal May 14.
The Tigers have not played either team this season.
An 11-4 win over Reynoldsburg on April 30 kept Central tied atop the OCC-Ohio. The Tigers and Lancaster were one game ahead of Grove City (8-5), which was scheduled to play Central for the third and final time this season May 2.
Central went 2-1 against Lancaster, including an 8-5 win April 27 in which the Tigers scored four runs in their final at-bat.
According to Noe, Thomas has been clocked hitting the ball as hard as 102 mph but did not get many looks from colleges until last winter.
Winston-Salem State coaches contacted Thomas through his mother one weekend in January when he already was in North Carolina to attend a camp at North Carolina A&T, about 35 miles from the Rams' campus.
"It was a cold day and I had a terrible workout at A&T," Thomas said. "I went to Winston-Salem the next day and got three or four homers in batting practice. They offered me that day. I guess it was just supposed to be that way. If one opportunity goes away and another one comes up, that's how it's supposed to be."
Track teams prepare for league meet
The boys and girls track and field teams combined to win nine events at two meets last weekend, and boys coach Jason Roach hopes that is a sign of things to come as the OCC-Ohio meet approaches.
"We've won some meets, and we have yet to have our entire team together for whatever reason. We have some kids who are involved in other activities. Who knows what comes up?" Roach said. "We never seem to be at full power until the league meet, but we're lucky to have the kids that we've got."
In the eight-team Milt Will Invitational on April 27 at Canal Winchester, the boys scored 82 points and finished third behind champion North (143) and the girls were fourth (87) behind the champion Panthers (154).
The boys got wins from John Brown in the discus (138 feet, 2 inches), Brady Johnson in the 800 meters (1 minute, 58.18 seconds), Ken Le in the pole vault (12-0), Matt Scrape in the 1,600 (4:28.01) and the 1,600 relay (3:32.05), and finishing first for the girls were Shayla Boyd in the long jump (16-3) and Madison Potts in the discus (113-4).
That same night in the Huber Heights Wayne Invitational, the girls placed sixth (41) of 45 teams behind champion and OCC-Ohio rival Gahanna (60.5) and the boys were seventh (36) of 43 teams behind champion Wayne (75). Winning were the boys 1,600 relay (3:22.25) and the girls 1,600 relay (3:58.29).
Central will compete Friday, May 4, in the Larkin/Crosten Invitational at Upper Arlington. That field also includes Dublin Coffman, Dublin Scioto, Granville, Hamilton Township, Hartley, Lancaster, North, Northland, Reynoldsburg and Watterson.
According to Roach, sprinter Denzell Feagin is expected to make his season debut at UA. Feagin is a transfer from Canal Winchester and had to sit out the first half of the season because of Ohio High School Athletic Association rules.
"We'll find out (May 4) how good we are," Roach said.
That is the Tigers' final competition before the OCC-Ohio meet that begins Wednesday, May 9, at Lancaster and concludes May 12 at Coffman.
In last year's league meet, the boys were second (143) behind Gahanna (147) and ahead of Reynoldsburg (97), Lancaster (77), North (43) and Grove City (16), and the girls placed second (150) behind the Lions (165) and ahead of Lancaster (85), North (65), Reynoldsburg (42) and Grove City (16).
Boys tennis team splits league title
The boys tennis team had to wait an extra four days, but the Tigers earned a share of their first OCC-Ohio championship since 2003 with a 5-0 win at Grove City on April 27.
Central did not drop a set in the win and finished 4-1 in the league to tie Gahanna and North for first place.
The Tigers lost to North 3-2 in their season opener April 5 but beat Gahanna 4-1 on April 19 in the Lions' final league match to spoil their hopes of a third consecutive outright title.
Central was 9-3 overall before playing Westerville Central on May 1.
The Tigers' match with the Greyhounds was postponed twice because of bad weather, first from April 17 to April 23 and then until April 27.
Below are the coming schedules for the Central baseball, boys lacrosse, girls lacrosse, softball, boys tennis, track & field and boys volleyball teams:
*May 4 -- Home vs. Gahanna. The Tigers lost to the Lions 4-2 in eight innings on April 20 and won 10-4 on April 26.
May 5 -- At Dublin Jerome with Big Walnut
*May 4 -- Home vs. Pickerington North
May 8 -- Home vs. Westerville Central
*May 4 -- Home vs. Pickerington North
May 8 -- Home vs. Westerville Central
May 7 -- Home vs. 38th-seeded Hamilton Township in first round of Division I district tournament. Winner visits eighth-seeded Hilliard Darby in second round May 9. The Tigers are seeded 16th.
May 3 -- Home vs. Hilliard Davidson
May 7 -- At Worthington Kilbourne
May 8 -- Home vs. Olentangy Liberty
May 9 -- Home vs. Westerville North in makeup from March 28
TRACK & FIELD
May 4 -- Larkin/Crosten Invitational at Upper Arlington
May 9 -- OCC-Ohio at Lancaster
*May 3 -- Home vs. Pickerington North. The Tigers lost to the Panthers 22-25, 25-22, 25-18, 25-16 on April 12.
*May 8 -- At Upper Arlington. The Tigers lost to the Golden Bears 23-25, 14-25, 27-25, 25-17, 15-5 on April 17.