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Walk-on to national champion: Sanil Thomas reflects on Ohio State career

Then-junior setter Sanil Thomas sets the ball during the second set of No. 3 Ohio State’s match against No. 8 Penn State on Jan. 28, 2018 in St. John Arena. The Buckeyes defeated the Nittany Lions in straight sets (25-19, 25-15, 25-17) to pick up their fifth win of the season. Credit: Aliyyah Jackson | Sports Director 

Sanil Thomas seemed to fall into Pete Hanson’s lap.

In spring 2015, the Ohio State head coach was in Chicago watching top recruit Jake Hanes play in a tournament for Ultimate Volleyball Club, the same club Thomas played for. While Hanson was watching Hanes, Keith Kujawa, the club’s assistant director, came over and tapped him on the shoulder.

“He said, ‘There’s this kid whose dream is to play volleyball at Ohio State. Will you come watch him?’” Hanson said. “So I walked over there, and the coach pointed Sanil out, and after a little while I was like, ‘Hey, this kid can really play volleyball.’”

Hanson’s attendance made Thomas curious.

“I saw a guy with an Ohio State jacket and everything, and I was just like, ‘This is interesting,’” Thomas said. “‘This might be my shot.’”

As Thomas was leaving the facilities after the tournament concluded, he received a voicemail from his coach informing him to return to the court immediately. Thomas called him back curiously and his coach gave him some good news.

“He was just like, ‘How would you like to be a Buckeye?’” Thomas said. “I said, ‘I think I’d like that very much.’”

Since that point, Thomas has continued the legacy of the Ohio State setters before him.

As a three-time scholar-athlete, 2018 First Team All-Conference member and two-time national champion, most people are unaware that what perhaps best defines Thomas’ decorated Ohio State career: He was a walk-on.

As a high school senior, Thomas wasn’t receiving the recruiting buzz he would’ve liked.

“My journey here wasn’t very conventional,” Thomas said. “I wasn’t really heavily touted or heavily recruited or anything like that.”

His plan was to walk onto a team, whichever one would give him a chance, and Ohio State was No. 1 on his list. He’d applied and been accepted to the Fisher College of Business but hadn’t been able to earn any interest from the men’s volleyball program.

He finally gained interest after that day in Chicago, beginning his Ohio State journey the next season.

Thomas began his career as a Buckeye on the bench for two seasons, playing backup for junior setter Christy Blough, who totaled 1,232 assists during the 2016 championship season. Blough finished his career with 4,280 assists, ranking No. 5 in program history.

With Blough in front of him, Thomas never expected to touch the court.

“When I first came, I was bottom of the barrel, just kind of doing whatever, whatever role I needed to help with the team,” Thomas said.

During that time, which included two national championship runs in 2016 and 2017, Thomas spent a lot of time learning and practicing with Blough. Thomas said this time was invaluable to his growth as a player, a person and a student, considering Blough was balancing volleyball with a biomedical engineering degree.

“He’s probably one of the smartest guys I’ve ever met, on the court and off the court,” Thomas said. “We always roomed together on every road trip, so I could kind of see how he dissected the game, how he looked at things and how he prepared for every game. It definitely helped me out a lot.”

When Thomas finally got the chance to step into the starting setter role for the Buckeyes during his junior season, he did not disappoint.

His 1,309 assists and 216 digs in 2018 are both top 20 single-season records for Ohio State. Those numbers and Thomas’ leadership helped the Buckeyes reach the semifinals of the NCAA tournament.

Hanson said Thomas’ ability to do exactly what the team needs, whether it is a key dig, a perfect set or a critical ace, has been a cornerstone of his career at Ohio State.

“He’s just done great things for us in whatever role we call on him to do,” Hanson said.

This season, the Buckeyes were hoping to build on last year’s success and continue the excellence achieved in recent years, but injuries to key pieces, including Thomas, created a lot of disappointment.

Thomas sat for 12 matches with a right-hand injury he sustained late January while going up for a block in practice. Thomas said this season taught him to value every time he gets a chance to step on the court, whether in a match or practice.

Despite a long list of accolades and awards, Thomas’ gratitude for the ability to play the game he loves with the people he loves is what Hanson said will mark Thomas’ legacy at Ohio State.

“Sanil has been just a wonderful Buckeye,” Hanson said. “He just wants to do his best for the team and that’s what Sanil has always been about: What’s best for the team and what’s best for the program.”

Thomas will always want to win and will always be a winner, but it’s the relationships that matter most to him.

“At the end of the day when you look back at it, you’re not going to be like, ‘Oh, my team only lost two games. My team only lost four games,’” Thomas said. “Obviously winning the national championships, that’s amazing, but I had a blast with [my teammates]. Those guys are probably my closest friends. Spending so much time with them, just the camaraderie that we had, that’s bigger than winning the national championship.”

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