Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016 | 2 a.m.
Sam Thomas, Super Seven
Pam Wilmore, Super Seven
Jayden Eggleston, Super Seven
Eight members of the Centennial girls basketball team’s current senior class were already on their way to forming one of the storied program’s best-ever cores through their first two years of high school.
Then one of the nation’s most talented players in the class of 2017 arrived before the start of last season. Sam Thomas, who moved to Las Vegas from Bloomfield Hills, Mich., could have changed everything — and not necessarily for the better.
“If she came in and was kind of a jerk or didn’t work hard, it would have been hard,” Centennial coach Karen Weitz said. “But she’s not that kid. She’s such a nice kid that even though she may have taken minutes away from someone else, she’s such a hard worker and good person that they couldn’t really get mad at her or jealous of her.”
The Bulldogs and Thomas welcomed each other with open arms, and immediately reaped the benefits. Centennial reached a new plateau, winning a second straight state championship and finishing ranked No. 4 nationally by USA Today behind Thomas emerging as the state player of the year.
Expectations are high that the Bulldogs can maintain or surpass their accomplishments this year. It will be up to Thomas alongside classmates Pam Wilmore and Jayden Eggleston to lead them there.
The trio highlights the Sun’s preseason Super Seven team.
“I think all three offer that senior stability you’re looking for,” Weitz said. “They know and understand the system. They expose each other’s strengths and hide each other’s weaknesses very, very well.”
The 6-foot Thomas, a guard/forward, led the team in scoring last year by averaging 15 points per game. Weitz says she’s one of the best players she’s ever coached in scoring out of half court sets.
Eggleston, a 6-foot-1 forward, is just as dangerous in the open court, feeling most comfortable flying down the floor and scoring in transition. Wilmore, a 5-foot-6 guard, paces the whole show by always attacking and setting teammates up for shots.
“I kind of do a little bit of everything,” Wilmore said. “But my main job is to lead the team.”
She has the luxury of having teammates who can also carry the onus. When Wilmore’s playmaking has an uncharacteristic off night, for example, the Bulldogs can just as easily derive energy and feed off of Eggleston’s dominant rebounding ability.
The basic premise of Centennial’s system is that everyone on the team expends maximum effort to push each other.
“I believe that we’re really an upbeat team,” Eggleston said. “The motto is still there that we go hard.”
Colleges recruited Thomas heavily for the last few years, a process she recently ended by committing to the University of Arizona. Wilmore and Eggleston had to improve their consistency to start drawing interest last year, according to Weitz.
But both committed to it and were successful, making for a pair of proud moments when Eggleston signed with Iona and Wilmore announced she would attend New Mexico State next year.
“It’s the reason I do what I do,” Weitz said. “It’s the business I’m in: To get them to the next level and hopefully get their school paid for.”
Thomas expressed relief in making her college decision before the start of her senior season. She wants the focus to fall solely on the Bulldogs over the next three months through the state tournament.
At Centennial, team-first is the only way. It’s a concept Thomas accepted from the second she arrived at her new school, and ultimately, one she’s thrived in.
“The basketball is of course different, a different style of play,” Thomas said of switching schools. “But all in all, it was just great because in basketball, you’re going to have teammates who are family.”
Here’s the rest of our Super Seven team.
Celine “CeCe” Quintino, Liberty
5-foot-6 senior guard
Centennial defeated Liberty in last year’s state championship game, and the Patriots might again be the favorite to await the Bulldogs there this season.
If Liberty gets that far, it will be because Quintino took it there. She was one of the best point guards in the state last year, averaging more than six assists per game, but must increase her average of six points per game this season with the Patriots’ top two scorers graduated.
“Honestly, I love passing so it is kind of hard, but if there is a will there is way,” she said. “I’ve just got to change my mindset.”
Like Thomas, Quintino is a two-time Super Seven selection. She will play at UC-Santa Barbara next season.
Essence Booker, Spring Valley
5-foot-8 junior guard
Booker is the third and final two-time honoree on this year’s Super Seven team. She’s also in line to become only the second player to ever make the Super Seven three times next year.
After leading Spring Valley to a state championship in her freshman year, Booker wanted to improve her passing and rebounding as a sophomore. Mission accomplished, as Booker upped her averages to five assists and seven rebounds per game as Spring Valley made it back to the state championship game but lost in an upset to Faith Lutheran.
She also added 16 points per game. Opponents should be wary because this year, Booker is setting her sights on becoming a better defender.
“Our team didn’t really play man but this year we’re kind of transitioning into man so I had to work on my footwork and stuff,” she said.
Kayla Harris, Spring Valley
5-foot-9 junior guard
There might not be a better one-two punch in the valley than Booker and Harris.
Harris was just as productive as Booker last season — averaging 15 points, five rebounds and five assists per game. For their successes, they get the reward of moving up a classification and sharing a region with perennial powers Centennial and Bishop Gorman.
Harris won’t allow the Grizzlies to back down.
“Win everywhere, everything,” she said of Spring Valley’s goals. “We’re in a higher division now, so it’s going to be tougher competition but we’re coming.”
Skylar Jackson, Bishop Gorman
5-foot-11 senior forward
No player in the area is more strong-minded than Jackson. Confidence won’t be an issue with Bishop Gorman’s leader.
“I can shoot, I can dribble, I can pass,” Jackson said. “I can pretty much do anything.”
The Sacramento State commit is the lone returning starter on one of the state’s best teams. She knows there’s extra pressure falling on her shoulders, and she welcomes it.
She’s learned to be more encouraging and supporting in her final high school season.
“I had to work on it a lot,” Jackson said. “I’m not good at it. I used to yell at my teammates but now I’m learning to be nurturing.”