Editor’s Note: Over the next few weeks, The Ouachita Citizen will talk with baseball and softball coaches to reflect on the recent stoppage in play. Though highly doubtful, we’ll pose the question to coaches on whether or not they’ve experienced anything crazier than COVID-19 postponing (and possibly cancelling) spring ball.
No, Mitch Thomas can’t top the strangest week in sports history. Hardly any can. But the West Ouachita baseball coach is somewhat familiar to stoppage in play. Heck, most Northeast Louisiana coaches are after the 2016 flood.
Over 9,000 homes were flooded (with more than 5,000 homes being completely flooded) in the parish back in March 2016, which resulted in an approximate 10-day break from action that spring.
At that time, West Ouachita was struggling as a team. As Thomas put it, he had diligent workers that put in the effort, but the talent was somewhat lacking, even with future LSU star Zach Watson on the team.
But the flood forced baseball to take a backseat. And Thomas will never forget how it impacted everyday life.
“The roads were washed out, so kids couldn’t even get to school if they tried,” Thomas said. “We had some of our own kids that had houses flooded, and that’s what stood out to me. Some of those kids joined the rest of our team by filling up sandbags to try and help people. Seeing our guys do that was something.”
That 2016 team holds a special plate in Thomas’ heart for several reasons. For starters, Thomas’ son, Drew Thomas, was a valuable member of the team. So Mitch Thomas wasn’t just coaching another group at West Ouachita. He was coaching a group of kids he watched grow up alongside his son.
“Drew was actually held back in elementary, so he then started playing ball with a whole different group of guys,” Thomas recalled. “So it was really two groups I watched grow up that had been at our house. I knew those families personally.”
If you would’ve told Thomas that after the flood, that group would make a run all the way to 2016 Class 4A State Championship Game, he admits that would’ve been hard to believe.
“We were having to replace a lot of guys,” Thomas said. “We had to replace five starters. And we just hadn’t been playing well at the time.”
After winning District 2-4A, the No. 3 Chiefs defeated Vandebilt Catholic, bested district rival Neville in a second-round series, topped No. 6 Benton in the quarterfinals and upset No. 2 St. Michael, 5-3, in the semifinals.
Awaiting the Chiefs in the 2016 finals was No. 1 Teurlings Catholic, which boasted several college prospects.
“They were one of the best teams in the country,” Thomas said. “They had guys from all over Lafayette, and here we are just a group of guys from West Ouachita. I was really proud of the way we played in the state championship game.”
The Chiefs got five incredible innings out of Austin Tidwell on the mound, made play after play in the field, but ultimately lost 3-2 in the Class 4A State Championship Game. The contest was competed at such a high level that Thomas recently rewatched it.
“You know, actually this past weekend I saw Teurlings’ coach and we talked about that game,” Thomas said. “He said, ‘Man, that was one of the best games we’d ever been involved in.’ It really was a heck of a game. In some ways it was like a softball game. You blinked and all of a sudden you were in the fourth inning. I don’t look back and regret anything.”
Of course, there’s disappointment when you don’t win the championship, but it was hard for Thomas not to exhibit pride after a back-and-forth championship game that was played at such a high level. That 2016 team would become a point of reference for the rest of Thomas in the years that have since followed. Heck, recently he talked about that 2016 team with his 2020 squad.
“There’s a reason we were there,” Thomas said. “We went the whole year and had only two bad practices. Those guys worked so hard.”
The Chiefs’ star Watson batted .463 and belted nine home runs as a junior before earning The Ouachita Citizen’s Baseball Player of the Year Award as a senior in 2016. Thomas said Watson, along with Jamie Johnson in 2006, was one of the most talented players he’d ever coached.
“He and Zach had so many tools,” Thomas said. “That’s why the comparisons were made between the two because they could both run, hit for average, hit for power and were good defensively.”
After a strange 2016 season, everything came full circle for Thomas one year later. In 2017, Watson had just been inserted into the LSU lineup and the Tigers were playing against Auburn. Thomas was sitting in the outfield with some friends but got a chance to talk with Watson before the game.
“He told me he was going to hit where I was sitting, and sure enough, he hit one out three to four feet from where we were sitting,” Thomas said. “Kathy Rutledge went and got the ball for me. But isn’t that crazy?”