Marcel Thomas is back.
Thomas, who led Leesburg High School to the Class 4A state championship in 2011, has been named to replace Freddie Cole as boys basketball coach at Lake Minneola.
“I’m very happy to have this chance to take over a great program,” said Thomas. “Freddie laid the foundation for a great program and I’m honored to have the chance to step in and keep things heading in the right direction. When I left Leesburg, I had the opportunity to do a couple of other things, but I missed coaching in Lake County.
“The quality of play is a lot better than people might realize.”
Thomas brings a record of success with him to Lake Minneola.
In three seasons at Leesburg — from the 2010-11 season through 2012-2013 — Thomas logged a 75-19 record. In Thomas’ first season in Leesburg, the Yellow Jackets beat Fort Lauderdale Cardinal Gibbons 66-58 for the school’s first state title since 1977.
One year later, Thomas had the Yellow Jackets back in Lakeland, where they played for the Class 6A championship. In that game, Leesburg lost to Miami Norland — the first of four straight titles for Norland.
Thomas stepped down after the 2012-2013 season, which ended with a loss to Gainesville in the Class 6A-Region 2 semifinals.
Prior to his time at Leesburg, Thomas coached at Saluda (Virginia) Middlesex High School and at Norfolk (Virginia) Granby. Thomas compiled a combined record of 48-41 at his two stops in Virginia.
Sandwiched between his final year at Saluda and his only season at Granby, Thomas’ first coaching job in Florida came in 2005, when he began a four-year stint at South Lake and put together a 69-42 record.
He also spent time coaching at Winter Haven All Saints’ Academy and was athletic director last year at Oak Park Middle School in Leesburg.
Despite his prior success and the tradition established by Cole, Thomas believes this year will be his biggest coaching challenge. He is inheriting a team that returns no starters from last year and has no players on the roster with significant playing experience at the varsity level.
“We do, however, have a lot of juniors,” Thomas said. “That can translate into maturity. Plus, every player is eager to learn and wants to get better. As long as they’re willing to learn, everything they need to be successful is teachable.
“The potential is there for us to be a very solid team.”
For that to happen, Thomas said the Hawks will have to execute on both sides of the ball and compete every night against a challenging schedule. To that end, Thomas is planning to use fall league games to teach, “work out the kinks,” and establish parameters with his student athletes.
He doesn’t want players to be satisfied with their performance in November.
“Our mentality is going to be that we’re getting to Lakeland,” Thomas said, referring to The Lakeland Center, home to the Florida High School Athletic Association state championships. “That’s lofty, I know, but I want that bug in their ears. I want us to be disappointed if we don’t get there. When I was at South Lake, we had a goal one year to win district and that’s all we did.
“Since then, I’ve never set my goals lower than winning a state championship.”
Cole, who stepped down after making a decision to spend more time on his ministry and with his family, believes Thomas is a perfect choice to replace him.
“I am completely at peace with my decision to leave at this time and I think Marcel will do a great job taking the program to the next level,” said Cole. “He has far more wisdom and experience than I do with preparing teams to win championships.”
In five seasons, Cole compiled a 100-33 record with the Hawks, including an appearance in the 2014 Class 6A state championship game, a 60-44 loss against Norland. Excluding Thomas, Cole is the only boys basketball coach in school history.
Last season, Lake Minneola finished 21-8 — Cole’s third-straight season with at least 20 wins — and reached the Class 7A-Region 2 semifinals, where it lost in overtime to Melbourne.
“Simply put, my focus has shifted away from the basketball court,” Cole said. “My wife and I have started a church. It’s time for me to move on and do what God needs me to do and it made sense to go ahead with the transition, especially since Marcel worked with the program over the summer.”
In many ways, teams coached by Thomas and Cole are mirror images of the other. Both coaches favor similar styles of play — frenetic, up-tempo offense that feeds off aggressive, pressure defense.
“One difference between us is that Freddie always seemed to have at least one guy capable of going off and scoring 30 points,” Thomas said. “I prefer to have three or four players who can average 12 to 15 points per game. Part of the reason is that Freddie had guys who could score like that and I’ve really never had scorers like that, but it’s also because I feel it makes things tougher for defenses to have multiple scorers. It’s just a philosophical thing.
“Freddie’s style worked for him and mine worked for my teams.”
Lake Minneola Athletic Director Hilary Allen said Thomas, who teaches at Grassy Lake Elementary, will not join Lake Minneola’s teaching staff this year. Instead, he will be a lay coach — someone who does not work at the school for whom he or she coaches.
Nonetheless, because Grassy Lake is about 500 feet from Lake Minneola, Allen doesn’t believe there will be any problems with the transition from Cole to Thomas.
“It was important to make the transition as seamless as possible,” Allen said. “We didn’t want it to be a jolting experience for the players. Because coach Thomas worked with coach Cole over the summer and the players were already familiar with him, we thought this would be a very smooth transition.
“Plus, the state championship he won at Leesburg was a huge factor in making the final decision about his hire.”
Leesburg’s 2011 state title might seem like old history to some, but it’s still etched in Thomas’ memory. And the fire to win a second championship still burns within him.
“I can’t wait to get started.”