26 Feb Conway’s Jaiden Thomas has ‘the right attitude’
by Levi Gilbert
On Jan. 3, the Conway Lady Cats were seconds away from finishing a 61-51 victory at Marion and closing out a promising 11-3 non-conference run. And that’s when it happened. That’s when standout sophomore Jaiden Thomas’ season hit a tragically different trajectory.
“We were stalling and letting the clock run out,” Jaiden said. “With one second left on the clock, as I was dribbling, the opposing player collided into the outside of my leg. The impact caused a high ankle sprain that completely tore the ligament that holds the two leg bones together.
“It required surgery to fix.”
Conway has played its entire 6A Central schedule without one of its starting five. A few weeks later, the Lady Cats lost their starting center. As the conference season closes this week, Coach Ashley Hutchcraft and her Lady Cats have had to learn and grow more in the last two months than maybe any other Hutchcraft led squad. It’s been a learning and growing experience for Thomas, too.
“At first I wondered a lot why [the injury] had to happen and got pretty downhearted,” Jaiden said. “I do believe everything happens for a reason, and I’m determined to come back stronger than before. It’s discouraging at times because it’s very painful, but I love hearing comeback stories from similar injuries, and that motivates me.
“I also try to focus on the positive things. It could’ve been a lot worse. Keeping things in perspective helps me to keep the right attitude.”
A year ago, Thomas was the first Lady Cat off the bench for Coach Hutchcraft and was propelled into a starting role when Asiyha Smith’s season ended early due to injury. In her first start, Thomas led the Lady Cats with 32 points in a win over Cabot. The Lady Cats finished in the 6A semifinals.
“I was on the floor with a lot of experienced players, and they really embraced me, which helped me to relax and take on my new role,” Jaiden said of her freshman season. “It was a valuable experience for me. The semifinal loss motivated me in a lot of ways and helped reshape my mindset going into this year. It helped me realize how difficult it is to get to where you want to be sometimes.”
This season, Hutchcraft promoted two more talented freshmen — guard Chloe Clardy and center Savannah Scott. Thomas, who was in their same situation a year ago, has been able to help her younger teammates navigate the journey of moving up to varsity ball early.
“I just prepared them that there may be those that doubt you, and you might always feel like you have to prove yourself, but you’re here for a reason,” Jaiden said. “Your contributions are important to the team no matter how young you are.”
Thomas comes from a heritage steeped in Conway basketball royalty. Her parents, Mario and Micaela Thomas, both played college basketball. Her aunt, the late Dandra Thomas, was a Lady Cat standout in the early 90s and a member of the inaugural Wampus Cat Hall of Fame in 2019. Jaiden wears the same number Dandra wore — 24.
“It’s definitely special with what she accomplished as a Lady Cat,” Jaiden said. “Before that, my PaPa (Danny Thomas) wore it in college. He passed away right before my eighth grade season started, so he never got to see me play a game in a Conway High jersey. My mom wore 24 her senior year at UCA in honor of Dandra, so I wear that number with a lot of pride.
“My parents both played college basketball, so from the time I was little, they had a ball in my hands. At first it kind of seemed like a lot of pressure, but I learned to embrace it. My family never pressured me to play, but I know they were ecstatic that I fell in love with the game. We have a saying that we use a lot — ‘Be the best version of yourself that you can possibly be.’ I think that motto has helped me to focus on being my personal best instead of trying to fill someone else’s shoes or live up to expectations.”
Thomas was selected to this year’s 501 Basketball Team — 41 players representing the best the 501 has to offer both on and off the court. The team is sponsored by Conway Regional Health System, First Security Bank and Conway Orthopedics and Sports Medicine Center. The sophomore guard was nominated by Hutchcraft.
“Jaiden is a great scorer,” Hutchcraft wrote in her nomination. “She can score from anywhere on the floor. She is also one of those players that will have 20-plus points and you don’t realize it until after the game because she will also have numerous rebounds, steals, assists and blocked shots. Jaiden is a great teammate. She has a genuine love for her coaches and teammates and wants everyone to be successful. She leads her teammates by being one of the hardest workers on and off the floor.”
While Hutchcraft praised Jaiden’s pure scoring abilities, Thomas credits Hutchcraft with her offensive improvements over the last two seasons.
“I’ve became a really confident shooter under her system,” Jaiden said. “She incorporates a ton of shooting into our practices, and anyone that knows our team knows we love to shoot!”
For Jeff Matthews, play-by-play announcer for Lady Cat basketball on Conway Corp, it’s Jaiden’s attitude that truly shines.
“What impresses me the most is the way she carries herself every time we see her,” Matthews said. “If she is on the court, scoring 20 a game, or if she is on the sideline in a walking boot, her attitude seems to always be great. She presents herself in a way that makes you proud of her, even if you don’t know her.”
Off the court, Jaiden is involved with Caring Cats, Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Spanish National Honor Society at Conway High School.
“Caring Cats gives me the opportunity to work with students with special needs, and we do a lot of fun activities,” Jaiden said. “I love being a part of FCA leadership because it gives me a chance to grow in my relationship with Christ along with my classmates and friends. I love Spanish and am thinking about minoring in it.”
Last summer, Jaiden competed at the USA Olympic 16U trials and made it through the first round of cuts.
“It really motivated me to improve my game,” Jaiden said. “Everything there is so top-notch, and the experience was incredible. I got to meet a lot of really great players and coaches.”
With one more 6A Central game to play before the state tournament begins March 4 at Bryant, it’s still unknown if Lady Cat fans will get to see Thomas on the floor again for her sophomore season. The Lady Cats (20-7, 9-4) are in position to earn the No 2 or No. 3 seed out of the 6A Central. Whether Jaiden gets on the court in this year’s state tournament or not, one thing is clear — the future may be as bright for Lady Cat basketball as it’s ever been.
“The 6A is loaded with talent — some big-time college prospects that will still be on the court against the Lady Cats over the next few years — but I would put this team, at full strength, against any team in the state, this year and beyond,” Matthews said. “With Jaiden Thomas, Chloe Clardy and Savannah Scott leading this team the next few years, they are poised to have seasons that will be talked about for years.”
The Conway Lady Cats return to action at Bryant at 6 p.m. Friday, Feb. 28.
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