Confused. Befuddled. Perplexed. Bewildered.
No matter which of those words you want to use, girls basketball coaches from around the WPIAL have been scratching their heads trying to figure out a way to slow down a backcourt tandem that has been among the most potent in the area.
Shady Side Academy’s Maggie Spell and Karis Thomas have already established themselves among the top talents in the WPIAL … and they’re only freshmen.
“In general, when you look at a freshman, you can usually figure out a crack in their game that you can exploit,” said Burrell coach Shaun Reddick, whose team gave up 23 points to Thomas and 20 to Spell in a 28-point loss this month. “I’ve talked to other coaches that have played them, and we’re all still looking.”
You can look far and wide, but there’s likely not many ninth graders in the entire state that are in the same area code when it comes to talent. Spell has spelled trouble for Shady Side’s opponents via her ability to fill up the basket in bunches, while those who have doubted Thomas’ abilities have paid for it as she has used her unselfish play, passing talents and 3-point marksmanship to help lead Shady Side to a 13-1 record. The Bulldogs are a WPIAL title favorite in Class 3A.
“I think they’ve been as good as I could have asked for them to be,” Shady Side coach Jonna Burke said. “Sometimes they might even be overachieving a little bit as freshmen, but when you look at them play, I don’t think they feel that way. They’re just both very comfortable. They’ve worked really hard over a lot of years.
“They didn’t just come out of the box like that. They work hard on their own. To say you’re not just a little surprised would probably be a lie. I’ve been so pleased with how they’ve handled things, just jumping from playing eighth grade basketball to playing varsity basketball.”
Burke has been a head coach for 28 seasons, the past two at Shady Side, and she hasn’t started many freshmen in that time. But this season this coach who has more than 500 career wins has not one, but two starters who rank among the best ninth graders she has ever coached. Spell and Thomas are not only Shady Side’s top two scorers, but both also rank among the top scorers in the WPIAL. Spell averages 20.6 points and Thomas 17.5.
“It’s been really fun playing with her. It’s just really fun having that connection at a young age,” Thomas said of Spell, who first teamed up with Thomas on a SLAAM AAU team in seventh grade. Thomas still plays for SLAAM, while Spell plays for the Jersey Gemz.
The two live about 45 minutes apart — Spell in Jefferson Hills and Thomas in Washington — but on the court they are closely connected.
“Playing with Karis, it’s a lot of fun,” said Spell.
Thomas is a 5-foot-4 point guard and Spell a 5-9 shooting guard, and much of Shady Side’s offense runs through them. Each has been outstanding from behind the arc. Thomas has knocked down 49 3-pointers and Spell 35. Thomas averages 4.5 assists and 2.1 steals. Spell averages 2 assists and 1.3 steals.
“I think the best thing for the two of them is that they’re able to take a little bit of pressure off of each other because when they’re both in the lineup, it’s difficult to key on one of them because you still have the other one to pick up the slack. They really benefit from each other,” Burke said.
Thomas, 14, has been in the public eye since she was in elementary school. By the time she finished fourth grade, the slick-dribbling youngster had appeared on “Good Morning America,” played with the Harlem Globetrotters and even had a Division I scholarship from Duquesne.
But Thomas’ story isn’t all sunshine. It also includes tragedy. Her mother, Ciarra, died in 2018 from breast cancer. Three years later, Thomas lost her father, Randy, to pancreatic cancer. Ciarra was 31 and Randy 39. Karis lives with her grandparents, John and Connie Thomas.
“It’s really hard, but I always believe that he is always with me, just in a different way,” Thomas said of her father.
Added Thomas, “I just try to make them proud every single day by waking up and just attacking the day.”
Burke said she likes the way Thomas attacks the basket, too, but Thomas is not a shoot-first point guard. Not to say she couldn’t be
“Karis to me is really like the ultimate point guard. She’s selfless,” Burke said. “She plays so unselfishly because she really is a kid who can score 30 a game, and I’m not exaggerating. If she wanted to, she could score 30.
“But what she does is make everyone around her better. She distributes the ball and takes shots when we need her to. I’ve not had a kid that sees the floor like she does. She throws passes right to where you’re going to be. It’s really fun to watch. So she is somebody that just really makes everybody better.”
Spell fits that bill also, but it’s her penchant for scoring in transition and her shooting ability that stand out most.
“That’s my shooter,” Thomas said, smiling.
Like Thomas, Spell’s talents haven’t developed overnight. Spell has worked with local shooting instructor and skills coach Steve Brodzinski since she was in the fifth grade. Spell said that she trains with Brodzinski just about every day in the offseason and about once a week during the season. Brodzinski also used to work extensively with former Chartiers Valley standout and current Pitt freshman Aislin Malcolm.
“She’s inspired me to do what I do, and he’s taught me to shoot and be the person I am today,” Spell said.
Spell turned 15 years old this month, but she’s typically good for at least 20 a night for Shady Side. She scored a season-high 29 points against South Park.
“Maggie just has a nose for where the ball is going to be to score,” Burke said. “She is really good at getting out and running in transition. It’s nothing that we’ve specifically focused on or taught her, it’s just how she plays. She plays fast. She wants to get to the other end quickly.”
Thomas has become a big Indianapolis Colts fan in the past year. That’s because her first cousin, Rodney Thomas, is a rookie safety with the Colts. Karis said she and her cousin Xxavier, a standout football player at Central Catholic, have attended a few Colts games this season.
On the hardwood, though, Karis Thomas and Maggie Spell are thoroughbreds. And they could ultimately become Division I players, perhaps at even the Power Five level. Burke said Pitt and West Virginia have inquired about Thomas, who already has the Duquesne offer. Both should attract a lot of attention on the AAU circuit this summer.
Thomas and Spell might be new to the high school scene, but the word has already gotten out about them. That, Burke said, means they have a lot of work to do in order to achieve some of their biggest goals.
“They have to keep doing the things they have been doing to get where they are right now,” Burke said. “This year, people are surprised. It’s like, ‘Look at these two freshmen, they’re really good.’ They’re not going to be surprised any longer. Defensive schemes are going to try to slow them up. It’s not ever going to be easy for them because they’ve proven that they can play.
“So they’re going to get better because they’re going to continue to work hard, but it’s also going to get harder for them. Their levels, they’re going to have to push themselves to stay ahead of where they are now. It’s going to be a lot of work for them.”