For those who follow area high school basketball over the past three years, those two names rarely need a last name attached.
On Wednesday, Norwalk’s Jeff Thomas and Ben Haraway, two cousins who are inseparable on and off the court, signed their letters of intent to continue their basketball careers at the collegiate level.
Thomas signed with Division I Georgia State University, and is the first area boys basketball player to sign a Div. I full scholarship out of high school since Jimmy Langhurst (Willard) in 2005-06.
Haraway, the team’s point guard, committed to Div. II Malone rather than try the preferred walk-on route at Akron University.
Together, Thomas and Haraway have helped Norwalk to three straight Northern Ohio League titles after going 49 years without one prior to the 2010-11 season.
The Truckers won a district title in Div. I in 2011-12, the first in 38 years, and enter this season on a 43-game regular season winning streak.
“Since we were really little, my dad and Ben’s uncle had been telling us we’d be varsity as freshmen,” Thomas said. “I really didn’t believe him until it actually happened, and it was just real exciting. High school, the atmosphere that our past three teams have brought … just a real fun time.” Thomas had been linked to Div. I schools frequently over the past two seasons, but most of those schools mentioned were Mid-American Conference schools in Ohio, such as Toledo, Ohio and Miami.
But seemingly out of the blue, Thomas gave a verbal to Division I Georgia State University early in the fall, and on Wednesday, signed his letter of intent to attend the school on a basketball scholarship next season.
How did the Sun Belt Conference school located in the heart of downtown Atlanta appear on the radar?
“I was down in Georgia for a tournament, they saw me and contacted me,” Thomas said. “They said I was at the top on their list and wanted to offer.
“And just the image of going away from home from small town Norwalk to downtown Atlanta was really exciting,” he added. “We took a trip down there, and when I saw the campus I fell in love. The team was fun, the coaches were great, everything.” Thomas had offers from Toledo, Ohio, Wright State, Miami, and Fairleigh Dickinson in addition to Georgia St.
“I had a lot of coaches calling me every week, it’s hard to keep up with that along with school and basketball,” Thomas said of the recruiting process. “It was real difficult. I really think in my mind it was Georgia State, then Ohio or Miami.”
Thomas, who averaged 13.8 points and and 5.4 rebounds last season, is a two-time first team All-Northwest district selection. He was honorable mention All-Ohio as a sophomore, and third team last season as a junior.
Georgia State has won 37 games in head coach Ron Hunter’s first two seasons, and the coach said on Wednesday he is more than happy to land Thomas.
“Jeff is a high-IQ skilled player who can play three or four positions,” Hunter said. “He can do a lot of things on the court well, and as a coach, you love that type of versatility. I consider him a steal out of the state of Ohio and I think a lot of teams will be disappointed that they overlooked him.”
Norwalk coach Steve Gray knew he had two talented players when Thomas and Haraway arrived as freshmen.
“But I didn’t think they’d be this good, not initially,” Gray said. “We sort of figured things out the summer before their freshman year when we went to some tournaments. We went against some pretty good teams, and that’s really when I sat back and thought, ‘wow.’ “What Jeff and Ben have been able to accomplish, not only in basketball, but how they’ve represented themselves and their families and the Norwalk schools, is just a great testament to them.” Thomas’ 791 career points is 13th in program history. If healthy, Thomas will be the eighth player in program history to reach 1,000 career points.
As for Haraway, it was hard to turn down the scholarship money of Malone as opposed to the risks of walking on for Keith Dambrot and the Zips.
“My top two choices were Akron and Malone, but at Akron I probably would have had to walk on and try to earn a scholarship later down the road,” he said. “So in that regard, I thought Malone was best, and I can probably play right away.”
Haraway has 601 career points and will crack the top 20 in program history early in the season. His 335 career assists are third, and he’ll pass all-time leader Scott Spettle (384, 1992-95) at some point this season.
This season, he can become the only player in NOL history to lead the league in assists for four consecutive seasons since it was recognized in 1965-66, and is already the only Norwalk player to ever lead a single-season NOL category for three consecutive seasons.
“It really means a lot to me, and I take pride in that because it shows that I’m unselfish and willing to make the right play,” Haraway said of the assist accolades.
With the three straight NOL titles, an overall record of 62-7 in three seasons, along with the 43-game winning streak in the regular season as well as top 10 rankings in the Associated Press state poll, Haraway said the magnitude of the run hasn’t hit.
“It’s really amazing, and I feel like right now, Jeff and I don’t really understand completely what we’ve done,” he said. “I feel like later down the road, we’ll realize we did something really special. We know we’ve accomplished some great things, but right now our focus is just to keep it going.”