Sandy Thomas has always been passionate about basketball.
From her playing days at Bucksport high school and the University of Maine-Presque Isle, to her career as a successful high school and college coach, the sport has provided her with plenty of excitement and satisfaction.
The high point came during her stint as the head women’s coach at Division II Indiana University of Pennsylvania. After qualifying for an NCAA regional in 1999, her team posted a 24-5 record and went all the way to the Elite Eight during the 1999-2000 season.
However, she sensed something wasn’t quite right in terms of where she was placing her priorities.
“When I started to be pretty successful, I got it out of perspective,” Thomas said.
The devout Christian began to realize she was placing too much importance on winning at the expense of her principles.
Eventually, Thomas left full-time coaching. The move helped her re-evaluate what was most important in life.
Next week, Thomas will again have the chance to combine her two passions — sharing the Gospel and basketball — when she accompanies a contingent from the Athletes in Action organization, working with the Campus Crusade for Christ, on a 10-day trip to the Czech Republic in Europe.
Thomas will serve as an assistant coach and “Team Discipler” with head coach Cristy McKinney while accompanying a group of American college players on the faith-based basketball trip.
“It’s a great spiritual and cultural exchange by using basketball,” said Thomas, whose group will visit a country where, according to the 2010 World Almanac, 59 percent of its population do not have any religious affiliation.
“Sometimes, that’s not a bad thing,” she explained. “They don’t have any garbage or excess junk [in their minds].”
Thomas and her group won’t be playing a tour with games. Instead, the Athletes in Action contingent will alternate doing basketball clinics with Czech coaches and players.
They’ll also spend time spreading the message of Jesus Christ using AIA principles. Thomas, who previously had coached with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, believes basketball and faith go hand in hand.
“Coaching basketball becomes such a gift and a blessing when you’re doing it with a higher purpose,” she said.
Last year, Thomas was the head coach for an AIA team that included former Wisdom High and University of Maine player Tracy Guerrette and undertook a competitive tour of Brazil. She previously coached AIA teams in three fall college preseason tours.
Several years ago, she coached former UMaine players Julie Veilleux, Ellen Geraghty and Guerrette against the likes of Tennessee and Texas.
“It was so much fun coaching those three. It made me proud to be from Maine,” Thomas said.
Thomas explained the players who participate in the tours usually do so for the opportunity to travel. The young women come from a variety of backgrounds — economic, ethnic and religious.
The growth achieved by the participants is most often achieved not playing ball, but in their interpersonal communication during the trip.
“You think you’re going to go out and do ministry with the people where you’re going, but the majority of the ministry happens within the team,” Thomas said. “It’s pretty amazing to watch lives change in front of your eyes.”
In spite of their basketball talents, the players often find themselves able to open up and discuss difficult life situations with teammates and coaches during the tours.
“It all comes down to them starting to understand their relationship with their creator through the game of basketball. It’s a blessing to watch how it all happens,” Thomas said.
Thomas’ college coaching career included three seasons as an assistant at the University of Maine (1989-92), then four seasons at Michigan (1992-96), all with head coach Trish Roberts.
Thomas spent seven years at IUP, leading the to a 122-71 record from 1996-2003.
Last season, she completed a two-year stint as the color commentator on UMaine women’s basketball radio broadcasts.