Ripon High senior Sydney Thomason drew interest from NCAA Division I softball programs prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Who wouldn't want to take a flier on a 6-foot tall utility player who can pitch, rake and boasts a winning pedigree?
Fate would steer her away from the Division-I dream, but in her mind it landed her in an even better situation.
On Nov. 12, Thomason inked a National Letter of Intent to continue her softball career at University of Nebraska at Kearney — an NCAA Division-II school out of the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association.
“It's crazy how it all worked out,” Thomason said.
What led to that point?
“One big coincidence,” she added.
More on that later.
Her uncertain future was further clouded starting in mid-March when sports across all levels were shuddered by the spread of coronavirus.
The NCAA granted one more year of eligibility to seniors of spring sports who had their final season cut short, but this led to crammed rosters with incoming talent coming from the 2020 class. As a result, many programs limited their recruiting from the 2021 crop.
“I was left in the dust,” Thomason said. “I kept my options open and was willing to listen to whoever wanted to talk."
Over the summer, Thomason began to look at schools in Nebraska, a state her family is already familiar with. Older sister Avery Thomason, a 2019 Ripon grad, is a sophomore wrestler at Midland University in Fremont, Neb., nearly a 3-hour drive from Kearney.
The Thomasons already had a visit to the Cornhusker State planned for September when UNK coach Katie Ackermann unexpectedly reached out via email.
“She said, 'Hi, we're really interested in having you,' and I was like, 'No way, we're literally about to go down there and I would love to see the school.' We talked about believing in coincidences and how it all worked out. I fell in love with what the school and the coaches had to offer, and I really felt that they believe in me.”
Thomason is looking into a career in computer science or computer engineering, and UNK just so happens to have a well-regarded STEM program.
She also likes what Coach Ackermann has done in her first year as head coach. Hired in September of 2019, she had the Lopers at 13-13 by the time her inaugural season was halted. The team was vying for its first winning record since going 26-24 in 2012.
Thomason's truncated junior campaign ended with Ripon at 5-0. She pitched in every contest while hitting .750 with two home runs and nine RBIs.
The Indians were denied a chance at repeating as Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV champion. In 2019, they went 24-2 and were named Cal-Hi Sports Division IV Team of the Year. Longtime coach Robert Vernon, meanwhile, earned Small School Coach of the Year.
Thomason broke out in a big way as a sophomore, leading their power-packed lineup with a .575 batting average that included three homers, 12 doubles, 30 RBIs and 29 runs. She was also voted All-Trans-Valley League Pitcher of the Year, logging 153 out of 155 of the innings the team played and sporting a 2.10 earned run average.
“I'm so thankful for Coach Vernon,” Thomason said. “He was so helpful with recruiting and worked very hard for me. I want to get one last season with the school, especially for him and for my teammates.”
A multi-sport standout for Ripon, Thomason is trying to make the most of her time with volleyball and basketball seasons postponed. She has played in out-of-state tournaments with the NorCal Firecrackers, who have featured the versatile athlete at both corner outfield spots as well as shortstop and third base.
Since then she has been putting in the work in the gym and batting cages when possible. Prep athletes hope to find out in January if they'll get to play sports this academic year.
If Thomason doesn't get a proper sendoff with her high school club, she can at least rest assure that her playing career is not over. She'll be happy to compete once again, no matter the division.
“Obviously, I wanted to play D1,” she said. “That's the dream and all, but with everything going on I just needed to take a step back and realize there are other schools out there willing to give me (scholarship) money. At the end of the day, I just want to compete. If there's a school that really wants to give me a chance to compete then that's where I want to go.”
“A lot of my friends who are 2021s are struggling to find schools, so I just encourage them to keep their options open and stay positive.”