Ray Thoma stood and watched during the UNLV Invitational last fall as his daughter displayed the traits that carried three generation of his family to athletic success.
Alexis Thoma had shown glimpses of what her father saw that day during her formative years in tennis while she worked her way up from the country club scene in Nebraska and into the national rankings of high school-age players before finishing her youth career in Frisco.
This was different, though, and Ray Thoma, a former minor league infielder, knew it.
Alexis Thoma fought through the challenges of playing at a new level — not to mention the opposition — and won her flight in her second collegiate tournament.
“That was awesome,” Ray Thoma said. “When I watched her in that tournament, I saw things that I have never seen before in her.”
Ray Thoma saw drive. He saw determination. He saw athletic talent.
Those traits are as inherent in the Thoma clan as having blonde hair or blue eyes are to other families.
They are what carried Ray Thoma to top levels of minor league baseball and made him something of a legend in the history of the Huntsville (Ala.) Stars, a longtime Double A minor league affiliate. They are what helped Alexis Thoma’s grandfather, Peter Romano, earn a spot on Michigan’s tennis team and what helped her brother, Zach, carve out a significant baseball career at Western Michigan, where he started 137 games in three seasons beginning in 2010.
“It absolutely helped me,” Alexis Thoma said of her family background. “I grew up around sports and in an athletic, hard-working family. My dad really inspired me on the athletic side. My mom also played a part. She really supports me and makes sure that I have the best of the best and that I can compete and train on a daily basis.”
Thoma will have her biggest opportunity yet to build on the family’s history of athletic success this week when UNT plays in its first Conference USA tournament at the Folkes-Stevens Tennis Center on the campus of Old Dominion in Norfolk, Va. Thoma is expected to be in UNT’s doubles and singles lineup when the Mean Green faces Southern Miss in the quarterfinals at 9 a.m. today.
UNT, which is ranked 64th in this week’s Intercollegiate Tennis Association poll, is the No. 3 seed and received byes in the first two rounds of the tournament that began Wednesday.
Thoma played a key role in helping the Mean Green get to that point. The freshman has posted a 7-7 record in singles in addition to setting an example with her work ethic and taking the first steps towards becoming a player coach Sujay Lama hopes will establish a steady flow of top American players into UNT’s program.
Lama has built a team that has advanced to three of the last four NCAA tournaments largely with foreign-born players but has always wanted to supplement that pipeline with top-rated American recruits.
Thoma, who grew up in Nebraska before moving to Frisco before her sophomore year in high school, is arguably the top American player Lama has signed in eight years at the school.
“Alexis is the type of girl we want,” Lama said. “She was a top player in Texas. My philosophy has been to not just bring in American kids because they are American. I want to bring in kids who fit our mold, which is to have a tremendous work ethic, a desire to improve and be part of a program that aspires to be in the top 25.”
A part of the melting pot
UNT had just begun preseason practice earlier this year when Lama headed out to the courts at the Waranch Tennis Center.
The beginning of practice was still 30 minutes away, but Thoma was already out on the courts stretching and running.
Lama knew when Thoma continued to follow that routine on a daily basis that he had a player who would fit in with the Mean Green. UNT traditionally features foreign players who leave their family and friends behind and come to America to specifically to play college tennis.
That type of commitment often carries over to the court, where UNT’s teams have been known for being relentless. Arguably the signature moment in program history came in 2010 when Catalina Cruz came back from a 5-1 deficit in a third-set tiebreaker in the decisive match for a win that sent UNT to the NCAA tournament for the first time.
Lama has searched for a player with the talent and drive Cruz showed in that match to help open a pipeline of top American-born players with the same traits and believes he found one in Thoma. Lama always believed that if he could find an American-born player who could show that it is possible to become a nationally prominent player at UNT, more would follow.
Thoma, a powerfully built 5-foot-5 freshman with long brown hair and boundless energy, expects nothing less of herself than to become that player.
“There are not many American girls who are willing to work as hard as I do,” Thoma said. “A lot of them just think it is going to be handed to them. I’m in that foreign culture that not a lot of other Americans follow.”
Thoma and her teammates describe that culture — one Lama has worked to make the foundation of his program — as one based on hard work, both on the court and in the classroom.
It’s the only culture that really matters for UNT’s players, who have found a common bond in the game despite being from all over the world. UNT’s roster includes players from the Ukraine, Puerto Rico, Chile and South Africa.
Thoma’s teammates say she fits in and might be the most focused player on the team, a trait they suspect comes from her family background after meeting her parents.
“She’s very intense,” teammate Ana Sofia Cordero said. “If you come from a family where sports is played at a high intensity, that helps you know what that kind of culture is like.”
A family legacy
Thoma never saw her father play in the minor leagues but has heard all about his seven seasons in professional baseball beginning in 1982.
Ray Thoma was invited to major league camp multiple times but spent his career playing in the minors after being selected by the Oakland Athletics in the sixth round of the 1982 Major League Baseball draft out of Western Michigan.
Thoma rose through the minors with Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, the famed “Bash Brothers” who were later key figures in baseball’s steroids scandal.
Thoma left his mark while hitting .247 during his career. He hit the first home run in the history of Joe Davis Stadium in Huntsville, Ala., in 1985 as a member of the Huntsville Stars, who won the Southern League title that same year.
Alexis Thoma benefited from the lessons her father learned along the way.
“My dad made sure he taught me everything he learned in sports,” Alexis Thoma said. “He taught me that if you don’t give 110 percent, then you shouldn’t be doing what you are doing.”
Alexis Thoma tagged along to watch her father coach her brothers’ baseball teams, but it was her mother that introduced her to tennis.
Patricia Thoma played at the local country club and often took her daughter along.
“She wanted to be with me,” Patricia Thoma said. “I told her that if she wanted to come along, she would have to learn to play. She just loved it. We couldn’t get her away from the club.”
Alexis Thoma eventually developed into a top player in Nebraska.
The distinction was one the family knew wouldn’t carry a lot of weight with college coaches. The Thoma family moved to Frisco largely to give Alexis a better chance at earning a scholarship.
Thoma started at the very bottom in terms of the state rankings and quickly moved up while working with private coaches Dusty Oglesby and Andrew Painter at Lakes Tennis Academy.
Thoma only went to Frisco High School a few hours a day so that she could focus on tennis.
“She made a lot of sacrifices,” Patricia Thoma said. “She was on the court for six to eight hours a day.”
Alexis Thoma’s talent and dedication caught the attention of Lama and several other coaches in the region, including those at Louisiana-Lafayette, Southern Miss and Marshall. Thoma went on recruiting visits to all three schools.
“North Texas was my very first visit,” Thoma said. “I had several others after that and couldn’t even focus because I wanted to call coach Lama and tell him that I wanted to play for North Texas.”
Lama was thrilled to land Thoma, largely because of her background and the lessons her family passed on.
“It filters down,” Lama said. “Parents who were athletes understand how hard their kids have to work and the process. They have dealt with wins and losses and have climbed the ladder. They know what it takes to be at the top, what it means to be at the middle and what a slump is like.”
Ray Thoma taught his daughter those lessons and everything he learned in his years in the minor leagues.
“The difference between winning and losing is the people who win have fallen but have gotten up one more time than everyone around them,” Ray Thoma said. “You see people who win every once in a while and people who are champions. The champions get up.”
That’s just what Alexis Thoma did over and over again in Las Vegas earlier this year.
“My dad really influenced me with his work ethic,” Alexis Thoma said. “I always wanted to prove to him that I could do what he did and be successful.”
What Ray Thoma saw that day in Las Vegas left no doubt in his mind.
The Thoma family’s legacy had been passed on one more time.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.