The 2019 Track & Field KCA Girls’ Coach of the Year is an impressive title, but for Coach Jon Thomas the words his athletes use to describe him might be far more important. Words like dedicated, patient, unselfish, and motivational…
Thomas has spent 29 years coaching track and field at Nemaha Valley and Nemaha Central, with 27 of them as the head coach. Though he recently coached the Nemaha Central girls’ team to their third straight state championship, Coach Thomas didn’t fall into a successful program. During the 1991-1992 season, the boys team had only 8-10 boys out and not many more girls. By 1999, the teams had grown to over 70 athletes combined on the boys’ and girls’ teams. The growth of the program can, in part, be attributed to Thomas’s desire to find the best connection of event and athlete.
“I think at that time and since, our staff has done a good job of finding events for athletes in which they have potential to be successful but maybe never tried. It is always very gratifying to help an athlete find an event(s) they can be successful at and keep their interest in track and field,” said Thomas.
He particularly remembers helping Adam Koehler during the 1993 season to find the event best fit for him. Koehler had been struggling as a freshman, so Thomas suggested a switch to the 800 meter run. “From there, he became an excellent middle distance and distance runner,” recalls Thomas. This passion for matching athletes and events not only grew the program’s numbers but also its success. It continued to fuel Thomas’s desire to get the most out of his athletes, “Adam was the first that I really thought I had helped and guided in a direction in which he could find success and build his own confidence.”
His former team members recognize his dedication to the sport and his athletes. Nikki (Runnebaum) Honeyman, who was coached by Thomas for four years, remembers him always being the last one to leave, “He was willing to research, ask others for help, or work with other programs. He did whatever he needed to help his athletes get better.”
Though Thomas doesn’t directly coach each event, he shows interest in the success of each athlete. Jacy Dalinghaus, a member of the 2019 girls team involved in each of the three back-to-back championships recognizes Thomas’s desire to see each athlete succeed. Since she was a thrower, Thomas didn’t work with Dalinghaus daily at practice, “but when meets came around, Coach Thomas was the first person to come up and ask me how I did in all my events. He’s always got a million things on his mind but still remembers to ask how we are all doing.”
Pre-game pep talks and half time speeches are more fit for a basketball locker room, but Thomas finds a way to inspire and motivate his athletes on the track, too. “He’s also such a great motivator. He always seems to know the right words to say when you’re having an off day. I can’t forget how light he keeps the mood. JT always knows how to have a little fun with us before big meets so our minds don’t get too focused and begin to overthink,” recalls Dalinghaus.
Past and current athletes alike recognize Thomas’s ability to help athletes grow and build a successful program.
Over the past 27 years, Head Coach Thomas and his teams collected 10 league titles, 17 regional titles, 6 state placings as a team, and 3 state team championships. Thomas attributes these successes to the hard work and dedication of both his athletes as well as assistant coaches, “I have had great athletes and coaches to work with.” Assistant coaches Mike Terpening (who Thomas served under as an assistant), Steve Lizzol, Ron Michael, Derek Bissitt, Connie Ronnebaum, Nikki Honeyman, Cory Bass, Todd Krause, and Bryce Bradley “have played a huge role in the success of the program,” said Thomas, “Of the 29 state champions during the last 29 years, they have directly coached 22 of them. Cory Bass has coached 9 of them and Mike Terpening coached 7 of them.”
Thomas’s desire to recognize the importance of his assistance shows his unselfishness and the humility he brings to coaching the sport. Honeyman, who later coached with Thomas, notes, “Track is an individual sport and coaching it is kind of thankless at times. Coach Thomas never looks for praise, but he has definitely turned out some great tracksters.”
Though he may shy away from such recognition, it is apparent that Coach Jon Thomas is deserving of his most current honor of Coach of the Year.