ASHLAND — Eric Thompson’s eight-year journey from Roseburg High School to a career as a middle school teacher — a zigzag marathon that’s included four years in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization, a triumphant return to organized basketball, marriage and the birth of his son — is about to come to an end.
And while the senior forward would love to have one more crack at the NAIA Division II national tournament — an opportunity that’s almost certainly riding on the Raiders’ performance in the upcoming Cascade Conference tournament — he’s not afraid to admit that he’s looking forward to moving on.
“Honestly, as sad as I’ll be to miss all the sports stuff,” he said, “I’m that much more excited to start my teaching career and spend more time with my family, and do something that feels a little more noble, in a sense.”
For Thompson, the “sports stuff” has been all consuming for nearly a decade. First recruited by SOU head coach Brian McDermott as a high school senior in 2006, Thompson instead decided to embark on a career in baseball as a pitcher after the Dodgers drafted him in the 23rd round.
Thompson, who’s listed at 6-foot-7, was no slouch in the minors — he threw a mean fastball that topped out at 94 mph and had a serious shot at making the big leagues after being assigned to the Dodgers’ AAA club, the Albuquerque Isotopes. But an injury to his rotator cuff derailed his baseball career and he ended up back at Southern Oregon in 2011 as a 23-year-old freshmen.
Now 26, Thompson is putting the finishing touches on one of the best four-year runs in program history. He became the Raiders’ all-time leading scorer during their fifth game of the season and has only added to his impressive numbers since while averaging 19.5 points and 7.5 rebounds.
McDermott calls Thompson the second-best offensive player he’s coached in his 35 years on the sideline. It’s easy to see why. Blessed with a cotton ball-soft jump shot that contradicts his chiseled 235-pound frame, an almost unblockable fadeaway and some nifty post moves, Thompson has been a nightmare for opposing defenses since returning to the basketball court.
“You can get baskets from him that you could never get from any other player,” McDermott said of Thompson's versatility. “It’s so unique in that way. There are just easy things that come from him that we don’t have to game plan for.”
Thompson provided a perfect visual of McDermott’s assessment Saturday against 11th-ranked Concordia, when the CCC’s preseason player of the year hit 13 of 21 shots, including 6 of 10 3-pointers, to score 33 points in 35 minutes. Thompson is shooting 51 percent overall and 45 percent from long range this season.
It wasn’t enough, however. Concordia fought back from a nine-point deficit in the second half to hand the 19th-ranked Raiders (22-8) their second home loss of the weekend. Now, fourth-seeded SOU will host fifth-seeded Northwest Christian in the first round of the CCC tournament at 7 tonight at Bob Riehm Arena.
No matter what happens, Thompson feels satisfied with what he’s accomplished in his time in Ashland, which included a trip to Point Lookout, Mo., for the national tournament as a sophomore in 2013.
“I think it’s a little different for me because I’ve had four years of baseball and now four years of basketball, and I’ve had so much fun in both careers that I don’t have any regrets,” he said. “I’ve taken so much from both of them, I’m not going to have that sad period. I’m at peace with so much of what I’ve done in sports.”
Thompson’s accomplishments go beyond sports. He’s been named a Capital One Academic All-District 4 all-star, and of the 20 honorees, Thompson and teammate Tim Weber were the only recipients currently in graduate programs. Thompson completed his undergraduate work in three years with a 3.57 grade-point average and is closing in on earning a masters degree from SOU’s strenuous education program.
To hear Thompson run down his typical daily schedule is to know the meaning of the term “full slate.” He usually wakes up at 6 a.m., arrives at McLoughlin Middle School in Medford for his four-hour student-teacher work at 7:15 a.m., then hustles back to Ashland for about six hours of classes. On the “easy days,” he practices from 4-6:30 p.m.
“Every day is a 10- to 12-hour day,” he said.
And that’s not counting family time, of which there isn’t much. Still, his wife Molly and 9-month-old son Asher get to see Thompson at night, a squeezed-in time slot which has to suffice for now.
The fact that his course work interferes with basketball is unavoidable, but Thompson says one of his greatest challenges isn’t necessarily that he can only practice with the team twice a week — it’s that when he does practice, he does so carrying the weight of multiple responsibilities, all of which require a certain amount of mental attention.
“I think because throughout the day I have so much going on, thinking about school and family, that sometimes I don’t always do the best job bringing energy and a ton of focus,” he said. “Sometimes, my mind is going in five different directions and coach Mac has to repeat things to me five times. Sometimes I’m over stimulated and sometimes I’m just low on sleep. I still try and show up for the team as much as I can in that way, but I’m learning as I go. It’s a one day at a time thing.”
McDermott says it’s been a challenge dealing with so many player absences from both Thompson and Weber, but is impressed with what they’ve been able to accomplish in four years at SOU. Besides, he said, his relationship with his players will go on long after they leave the program.
“(Thompson’s) obviously a great guy — one of the sweetest guys you’ll ever meet,” McDermott said. “That’s the first thing I’ll remember. He’ll be a friend for life. And the other thing is, he’s just more mature (than most college players). He’s made strides in some things, but he came to us as a man and you just don’t get that all the time.”