For several months, the simple act of getting out of bed was a chore for Colonial Forge junior Nori Thomas.
The pain would have been unusual enough for an average teenage girl, but Thomas is an elite athlete, tall and muscular with the ability to swat a volleyball with ferocity.
“I remember I used to wake up and my knees would be so bad that I would walk like an old woman to get my morning started,” Thomas said.
Thomas, 16, went through a lengthy period of uncertainty and pain before being diagnosed last September with juvenile idiopathic arthritis, an inflammatory joint disease that every year affects about one in 1,000 children aged 16 and under.
Thomas has controlled the condition through physical therapy and medication. Since starting her current treatment, her volleyball career has taken off.
With a new lease on her career, the 6-foot-1 Thomas was nothing short of dominant during the 2014 high school season.
The middle hitter led the Eagles with 332 kills, 81 blocks, 102 serving aces and a .445 attack percentage. She was a first-team All-Conference 4 selection after helping lead Colonial Forge to a 23–8 record and the conference championship.
For her outstanding season, The Free Lance–Star has named Thomas its volleyball player of the year.
“I think she set a lofty goal this year to prove a point,” said Jeff Thomas, Nori’s father. “She wasn’t going to let things going on in her body stop her.”
Thomas made up for lost time after being stuck in neutral for more than a year. She returned to the court late last season and was a pivotal player for the Eagles in the playoffs. It wasn’t until this season, however, that she realized the potential that many saw in her as a young club player.
She had two defining moments in the summer: selection to one of the prestigious teams of USA Volleyball’s High Performance Program and earning a full scholarship to Division I Elon University.
“I really pushed through the summer,” Thomas said. “I was like, ‘Cmon, Nori, you want this scholarship, just keep going, keep pushing, I know you can do it.’ It paid off.”
Thomas’ strong play carried over to the high school season. She used a fierce competitiveness and motivation from her past trials to perform at an All-State level.
“I don’t think juvenile arthritis defined her, but it gives her incentive and it really drives her to excel,” Jeff Thomas said.
Thomas is competitive, but very approachable. That’s how she’s able to play at such a high level while also maintaining a magnetic personality that allows her to hit it off with teammates and competitors alike.
A good example of this dichotomy occurred in the Conference 4 championship match at Forest Park High School. Bruins senior libero Kenzie Higareda, a Georgetown signee who set the VHSL record for career digs this year, edged out Thomas for conference player of the year honors earlier in the week, and that was a big motivator for Thomas.
“I congratulated Kinzie before the match, but under my breath I was like, ‘I’m going to take you down tonight,’” Thomas said.
Thomas proceeded to have one of her best performances of the season with 17 kills and eight stuff blocks in a five-set victory.
“Yeah, you don’t want to doubt her,” Colonial Forge coach Keith Mesa said. “Us beating Forest Park in the conference finals was a tall task. They are loaded. They have at least four kids that are full-scholarship Division I players. I think people have faith that we will do well because she is out there.”
Thomas’ leadership qualities are rare even for a powerful program like Colonial Forge, which is 164–3 against area teams the last 12 years.
Thomas is fun-loving, but she’s not afraid to be honest and sometimes blunt with her teammates. That combination makes her a prototypical leader, Mesa said.
“Nori is probably the best leader I think we’ve ever had here at Colonial Forge,” said Mesa, who has had seven of his girls selected as All-Area players of the year during his 12-year coaching tenure.
“And honestly, we’ve had some pretty good players here. We’ve had a lot of full-scholarship players, but I don’t think we’ve had one that has controlled the team as well as Nori is able to control the team without damaging any relationships, which is always a very tough task for girls.”
Thomas’ unique perspective is fueled by her competitiveness and past experiences with her physical condition.
She wears a bracelet that says, “Kids get arthritis too.” It helps her remember what she’s experienced, and it reminds her of what so many more young people are going through with the painful affliction.
“To be honest, I feel happy,” Thomas said. “I stand up in the morning, look in the mirror and I flex my legs and say, ‘Yeah those are pretty straight today.’
“I have a lot to be thankful for. Nothing has really brought me down too bad.”
Nathan Warters: 540.374.?5442