Thomas College boost ‘special relationship’
Thomas College in Maine — where Bermuda's Willie Clemons and Rai Sampson attend — are looking to boost their women's programme with local players.
There are strong links between Thomas College and the island, with 36 players contributing to their programme since Hubert Wade, of St George's, was the first in 1980.
Erika Russell, a former Bermuda player, was the only woman to play for Thomas College, about a decade ago, but that could soon change.
Jim Evans, the assistant men's and women's coach and goalkeeper coach, has been on the island the past couple of weeks to view female players in particular. He came for the recent Schools All-Star matches and on the weekend included a training match involving Bermuda Under-15, Under-17 and Under-18 girls' teams.
Evans is no stranger to Bermuda, in fact he knows quite a lot about Bermuda footballers, including former players and now coaches Andrew Bascome and Kyle Lightbourne. He tried to get Lightbourne to attend Thomas College before he decided to pursue a career as a professional in England in 1992.
Evans has been visiting regularly since 1987 when he first joined Thomas College as a coach. His first stint at Thomas College lasted six years and one of his first tasks when he returned to the school in August last year was to boost the women's programme.
“The reason I'm here is because we want to replicate what the men's programme has done,” Evans said. “The team has been very successful, with the nucleus of the team being Bermudian.
“I saw the All-Star games and [women's coach] Naquita Robinson put on a national team game at the Clyde Best [Centre of Excellence] field, so that was great.
“I've been going to their training sessions and watching them. She's a great coach and really works hard. She's married and has a full-time job, I don't know how she does it.
“She's got assistants, Vance Brown and Aaron Denkins, and on that Saturday they each coached a team and she overlooked the whole thing, so I was able to stand with her and ask questions.”
The top-ranked men's team were upset by sixth-seeded New England College Pilgrims in a penalty shoot-out 4-2 for the North Atlantic Conference Championship in November last year. The Pilgrims moved on to the NCAA Division III tournament.
There are eight Bermudian footballers at Thomas College: Diondre Dowling, Macquille Walker, Willie Clemons, London Steede-Jackson, Zeon Robinson, Mikal Simmon, Jordan Payne and Rai Sampson. Dowling and Sampson represented Bermuda at the Under-20 Caribbean Football Union Championship in October last year, while Clemons and Sampson played for Bermuda against Canada in a home friendly this month.
“Unfortunately Diondre injured his knee and had surgery so he's out long term,” Evans said. “We played him at right back a lot, a tough kid, winning headers off six-foot guys!”
Over the years, players who have attended Thomas College include Kallan Johnston, Michael and Winston Trott, Aljame Zuill, Dyke Lawrence, Wayne Campbell, Stephen Coddington, Mikkail Crockwell and more recently, Casey Castle and Tre Ming. “Bootsie” Wolffe, the DJ and comedian, is another former footballer who attended the school, and whom Evans has connected with while in Bermuda.
“The other people who have been helping Bermudian kids get to college, not just at Thomas College, are Irving Romaine of Berkeley [Institute] and Darrin Lewis of Saltus [Grammar School],” Evans said. “Irving and Chantelle DeShields, the girls coach at Berkeley, invited me to make a presentation to their kids. We had 35 or 40 kids there and some parents too, to get an idea of what they need to do.
“I'm not here for a one-shot thing, I'm here to build to build the same kind of relationship that we built with the guys, so that over the next 30 years there is a steady stream of Bermudian girls coming to Thomas, and also to other colleges.
“If they want a certain major that we don't have, I will put them in contact with a college that has it. Why not? You can never go wrong helping somebody.”
Evans added: “I've been here a week each time during the All-Star games from 1987 to 1993. Michael Trott, PJ Coddington, Cavon Steede and Craig Critchlow were in the All-Stars games and came to Thomas. Michael is the all-time leading scorer at Thomas, something like 50 goals. He came to us as a midfielder from PHC Zebras and we put him up front.”
“Willie Clemons is our best player,” Evans said. “Zeon Robinson, a centre back, is an excellent player and reads the game very well. he plays like an older guy, very savvy and doesn't waste any energy.
“Jordan Payne, a sophomore, had shoulder surgery in pre-season and missed the season. They've won the league a number of times recently, regular season champions but lost on penalties in the final.
“With the women we've been a more local team as far as where we attract the players, mostly from Maine but a few from New Hampshire and Massachusetts. We really want to get a core of Bermudians like we have with the men. Erika Russell, who played football and basketball, was very good but that was about ten years ago. I've not met her but I'm trying to this week.
“There are four girls who have applied to Thomas since I've been here and if they all come they're going to change that programme overnight, from the lower half of the table to the upper half of the table right away.”
Several young female players, still a few years away from college age, have caught Evans's attention and he will share his findings with Deb Biche-Labbe, the head women's coach.
“There are a lot of young ones not ready to come yet who are very, very good, so we're building relationships,” he added.
“It's really been fun to help train them, they have a good mentality and work hard. What's been our selling point at Thomas all along is it's small and everybody gets a chance to be a real leader there.
“I've been to Saltus to watch under-8 and under-10 games and I was very impressed with the level of play. This is the beginning of a long relationship, Deb and I are going to be their surrogate parents, to look out for them and to make sure they're studying. It's way more than football, these Bermudian guys who played for me, we've been friends ever since. They're family. I stayed at Mikal Simmons's house for a week, now I'm staying with “Bootsie” for a week.”