Summit local Thomas DeBonville achieves NCAA Tournament baseball dream with underdog Nebraska Omaha
SUMMIT COUNTY — Omaha, Nebraska, is a city synonymous with college baseball greatness.
Each year Omaha is the epicenter of the Super Bowl of college baseball, as the NCAA’s Division I College World Series takes place at the city’s TD Ameritrade Park. The park is, for so many college baseball players and fans, the end of what’s known as the #RoadToOmaha.
This year, however, there is a new wrinkle in the #RoadToOmaha, as a new team from Omaha for the first time will be playing in the NCAA Tournament and has the chance to reach the College World Series — even if the odds are heavily against them.
That team, the University of Nebraska Omaha, has been led this year by Summit County’s Thomas DeBonville. The center fielder, a Silverthorne local and a Summit High School alum, has played a heavy hand in leading Omaha’s hometown team to its greatest success ever and its first appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
Come Friday at 8 p.m. MT, DeBonville’s team, the Omaha Mavericks, will take the field against the nation’s No. 1 team, UCLA. It’ll be Omaha’s first game in the four-team, round-robin Los Angeles regional format that pits the Mavericks and Bruins with Loyola Marymount and Baylor. One of those four teams will advance to a two-team best-of-three super regional series, the winner of which will advance to the College World Series in Omaha.
Though the Mavericks may be the biggest underdogs of all 64 teams in this year’s NCAA Tournament, DeBonville and the Mavericks are excited for the ultimate David-versus-Goliath opportunity to shock the college baseball world.
“I don’t think anyone expects us to win except for us and our fan base,” DeBonville said. “I think we are going to have a chip on our shoulder, and the pressure is on them.”
DeBonville’s journey to the Division I NCAA Tournament has been a long and winding road, one that has taken him through many club teams, seemingly endless tournaments across the country and two colleges. It all started, though, in Summit County, where the multi-sport star DeBonville opted for baseball rather than traditional mountain sports because he loved the team-element of the nation’s pastime. His love for baseball led him to the Summit Extreme program as an elementary- and middle-school student. DeBonville credited the Extreme with helping to foster his love for the game as well as his skills.
And when winter’s snowfall came around and it was too cold to practice outside, DeBonville often found himself going to the batting cage near Lakeside Bowling and Billiards in Dillon to improve his craft.
Growing up with the game alongside his older brother Alex, DeBonville started on the Summit High School Tigers varsity baseball team as a freshman. As a sophomore, a new friend in Mitchell Gray moved to town and joined DeBonville and his longtime friend Luke Egging on the Tigers varsity team. The baseball-loving trio soon set out to do whatever they could to achieve their dreams of playing college baseball, even if their home in Summit County didn’t have a full-sized diamond of its own.
“I knew it was going to be hard coming from the mountains to be recruited,” DeBonville said. “But I really wanted to be Division I. I think I knew in my heart that I wasn’t going to be able to do that right away.”
An upperclassman and star shortstop at Summit High, DeBonville soon realized junior college would be the best route to fulfill his dream of playing Division I baseball. It was alongside Gray and Egging at a showcase in Arizona where DeBonville caught the eyes of the coaches at Eastern Arizona College, who offered him a JUCO scholarship.
“Junior college for baseball, it’s a crazy grind,” DeBonville said. “You’re basically practicing three to four hours every day, plus lifting, it’s definitely a lot of work. But it’s awesome. The guys stay before and after practice to hit. It was just a lot of fun to go out there and work your hardest with all the guys.”
DeBonville got his break at Eastern Arizona during his freshman season when the team’s starting third baseman missed the team bus. Plugged into the starting lineup, DeBonville played well enough to never have to relinquish his spot in the lineup over the next year and a half. His success at Eastern Arizona also helped DeBonville to play on a college summer league team with the Swift Current Indians in Canada. While with the Indians, team officials connected DeBonville to Nebraska Omaha, to which he was offered a scholarship for his junior and senior seasons.
DeBonville has played strictly in the outfield for the Mavericks this year, and has provided an all-around offensive spark for the team as he is third on the team with a .281 batting average in 53 games. The center fielder leads the team in at bats (217), hits (61) and triples (6). DeBonville is also tied for the team lead in home runs, with six on the season. More than anything, though, the center fielder prides himself on the consistency of his performance.
“I’m a gamer,” he said before practice in Los Angeles on Thursday morning. “A grinder. Someone who goes out and plays their hardest during every game.”
The Mavericks will certainly need that tenacity on Friday night when their game versus the heavily favored Bruins is broadcast on ESPN3 and the WatchESPN App. No matter the outcome, though, this has been a special year for Nebraska Omaha. Just eight years ago, the program bumped up from Division II to I. On Saturday, the team clinched its first-ever tournament berth by defeating the Summit League conference’s historical powerhouse, Oral Roberts, 4-0 in the deciding game of a best-of-three conference title series.
Fewer than 48 hours later, on Monday morning, DeBonville and the rest of the Mavericks players convened at campus hotspot DJ’s Dugout to watch the tournament selection show. They didn’t have to wait long, as their named flashed on the screen with No. 1 UCLA right away, eliciting an uproarious reaction from the true hometown team of this year’s NCAA Tournament.
“The energy in Omaha is absolutely amazing right now,” DeBonville said. “There are so many fans reaching out and rooting for us and everything. All of us are super pumped. With Omaha defintiely being a baseball city, this is a huge start for the university. And I think for years to come Omaha is going to be doing amazing things for baseball.”
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