Friends, family and former teammates gathered Monday at the Lions Club Park and Recreation Center as Ellison senior Symone Thomas signed her national letter of intent to play Division I volleyball for Norfolk State University.

“Virginia was not on my radar,” Thomas’ mother, Dolores, said. “She had other offers here in Texas but she chose Virginia because she fell in love with the campus, she fell in love with the program.

“Home is where she makes it.”

As for Thomas, the choice came after her father, Gregory, encouraged her to send the school her game film. The next day head coach Dave Albaugh called her.

“We stayed on the phone for an hour and then we started talking about a visit,” Symone said. “And then when I went on the visit, I loved it.

“The team’s great, the people are great, the school’s great and I just fell in love.”

Before signing her letter, her volleyball coaches from throughout the past six years — from junior high to club ball and high school — each took turns sharing a story or two about Thomas.

Each story had the same message: Thomas is dedicated to the game, she’s always played with intensity and she has always stepped up to be a leader on and off the court.

Coach Jackson Aparicio of the Killeen Juniors Volleyball Club remembers when he first started coaching Thomas and her father asking, “Can my girl go to college?”

But what really stuck out to Aparicio is her intensity, to the point of being intimidating, her serious dedication to volleyball and expecting the same from her teammates.

Coach William De Gracia, former head coach at Ellison, coached Thomas at the high school level for a year but continued to see her grow in club ball.

“Coach, how am I doing now?” De Gracia remembers her always asking. “How can I get better?”

Ellison head coach Sarah Stolley has watched Thomas all four of her varsity years, first as the assistant varsity coach her freshman year and as her head coach the past three years.

After sharing a story about Thomas’ struggles once playing on the right side because a teammate had missed the bus, Stolley noted the legacy Thomas is leaving behind for the Lady Eagles in her regular position.

“She more than made an impact,” Stolley said to the crowd, “She set the bar really high as a middle.”

While she didn’t have all of Thomas’ stats, Stolley started to tear up sharing that from her sophomore year to her senior year Thomas totaled 305 kills and 151 blocks.

“I’m so proud to be part of the journey.”

But off all those who shared their favorite moments of watching Thomas grow as a player, her father was the most emotional.

Five years ago, Thomas attended a volleyball camp at the University of Texas and Gregory shared the excitement his daughter had as he picked her up.

On the car ride home she asked, “Dad, you think I could get a scholarship to college?”

“Five years later, here we are,” he said.

Dolores admitted to the crowd that she is not your typical volleyball mom.

“I’m the mom who says have fun, don’t care about stats.”

She never looked at volleyball as an investment for her daughter because she knew Thomas’ grades could get her to college.

Thomas not only received a scholarship to play for the Spartans but was also accepted into the Robert C. Nusbaum Honors College.

After signing her letter, Thomas took to the podium sharing that for her volleyball isn’t just a sport, it’s an everyday part of life for her.

“Volleyball is the love of my life,” Thomas said.

She also realizes that club volleyball — from the uniforms to traveling to games, practices, tournaments and hotels — adds up financially.

Choking back tears, she thanked her parents for their support before thanking her little sister as she brought her a tissue, “She’s the loudest one when I’m on the court.”

Mixed in the crowd of various people who Thomas credits for helping her reach her goal of playing volleyball at the collegiate level was her neighbor and mentor Justice of the Peace Claudia Brown.

Brown shared the story of how she met her neighbor. After seeing various things on the news happening in her community, Thomas knocked on Brown’s door to voice her desire to influence positive change in her city before asking the judge if she could shadow her.

That desire to influence change in her community doesn’t stop when she graduates and goes off to college.

“Not only do I want to play volleyball there, but I want to get involved in the community of Norfolk,” Thomas said.

“I want to get involved in the school, in student government, student clubs and stuff like that.”

“I just want to leave my mark from Texas to Virginia.”

fcardenas@kdhnews.com | 254-501-7562

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