C.J. Thompson holds his award, as top WNC male athlete. Photo by Ron Tune.
By Pete Zamplas – Two-sport superstar C.J. Thompson of Erwin came up big when it counted most on the field and court, and again now as the premier male high school athlete in all of western North Carolina.
Thompson, 19, a senior, was honored by the Mountain Amateur Athletic Club at its 56th WNC Sports Awards Banquet presented by Ingles May 7 in the Omni Grove Park Inn. The male athlete award’s sponsors are Darlene and John McNabb.
Thompson earlier scored the rare Daily Double as player of the year in both basketball and football, in the area’s elite 4A/3A Mountain Athletic Conference. The point guard was the best scorer among MAC players, averaging about 25 points and three steals.
As a slot receiver he caught 88 passes for 1,247 yards and 18 touchdowns and 72 for 775 yards and 10 scores as a junior to total 160 catches and surpass 2,000 receiving yards in his final two seasons.
Last fall, he set a WNC mark with six TD catches at tough Franklin in a 57-34 triumph. He tallied 2,135 all-purpose yards. He rushed for 305 yards and four scores, returned kickoffs for 488 yards, punts for 41 and five interceptions for 54 yards. He threw eight passes, completing six with one for a score. He hurled many more passes on the hardcourt.
His duo MAC MVP status separated him from a high-caliber pack, including his passer — WNC career passing (9,189 yards) record-setter Damien Ferguson. “I’m very proud of him,” Ferguson said. “He deserves it.”
Both are heading to Mars Hill College for football. Thompson is told he will play receiver and some defense. He hopes to also play hoops there. Orientation is May 20. He plans to major in business. He gets nearly all A’s, with a 3.7 unweighted GPA.
C.J. Thompson cuts and races upfield, at Reynolds in playoffs in his final Erwin football game. Photo by Pete Zamplas.
North Henderson basketball-volleyball star Caroline Marsh was chosen as top overall female athlete. There were 20 athlete winners from 95 finalists split between “major” and Olympic sports, teams and individuals, male and female, and 4A/3A and 2A/1A.
Buncombe winners (all 4A/3A) included Reynolds soccer as male major sport team, Enka softball as female major team, Enka wrestling as male Olympic sport team, Roberson swimming as female Olympic team, Asheville track star Noah Shore as Olympic sport male athlete, and female Olympic athlete co-winners Michelle Cobb of Roberson track and North Buncombe golfer Callista Rice.
An Enka athlete is going out with a bang, as Chris Bang was selected as top male student-athlete. Ten scholarship winners ($1,500 each) included North Buncombe’s Callie Rhea and Sophie Robinson.
Asheville Grizzlies semi-pro football head coach Phil Lytle got the lifetime achievement award. Also, the WNC Sports Hall of Fame inducted Murphy football coaching legend David Gentry and former Asheville Tourists baseball execs Carolyn and Ron McKee.
Thompson’s most dramatic gridiron play was in Clyde A. Erwin’s 3AA playoff first-round win, at Sun Valley in Monroe. Spartans vs. (Erwin) Warriors was an ideally-named clash. Erwin led until Sun Valley drove long, and scored late.
“I was shocked and crying, because it seemed we might lose,” Thompson said. “It was the last two minutes. I thought ‘Dang, I got to make a play.’”
Surprisingly, instead of again avoiding Thompson the final Spartan kickoff reached his stratosphere. He went “full speed” to his right, and snatched it near the sideline at the 15. As he sped across midfield, he cut left to the center of the field then raced ahead. “He saw the lanes,” Ferguson recalled.
Next was a pleasant sight of the nearest blocker, his swift brother Simeon Thompson, sophomore track standout. “I knew he’d make that block,” C.J. said. “I felt safe then,” resolute he would go the distance.
He glanced back, while sprinting ahead. Seeing no Spartan near him, he slowed in final yards use up clock. “He was so far ahead, and savvy enough to stop at the goal line for what seemed like five seconds,” longtime Erwin head coach Mike Sexton said. “That’s such a heads-up, intelligent play to limit the time left” for the other team.
Thompson said the nearest approaching defender seemed “mad” and yellowed “how did he do this (break free)?” Before the Spartan touched him, Thompson stepped into the end zone with 1:45 to go. “It sure felt good. I knew my team depended on me, to make a play sooner or later.” It came sooner, on that kick return. The Warrior defense preserved the 50-43 conquest.
C.J. coming through in prime time is no surprise to Sexton. “I’ve never seen him shaken, or out of control in three years. He’s a silent assassin.”
Slender 5-9 Thompson has run a 4.49 40 dash. He blends downfield speed with lateral and cutting moves. He often caught short “spread” passes, then zig-zagged for long gains. He likes to “step inside, spin off the defender, and keep going. I just find moves, off YouTube videos” of college and pro stars such as Antonio Brown to emulate.
Sexton said elusive Thompson is “dynamic in the open field. He makes something out of nothing. He change directions on a dime, and makes defenders look silly. Every time he touches it, he can take it to the end zone.” He said Thompson, among others, is an “intense competitor.”
After the season, Sexton stepped aside to focus on his athletic director duties. Sexton (74-37) won two of every three contests over nine years, to outdo predecessor in a decade-long span. When seniors were sophomores in 2014, they notched Erwin’s best varsity football start ever by winning their first nine games.
Sexton’s successor, Rodney Pruett, has been an Erwin assistant for 15 years — mostly on defense. Last year, Pruett coached Thompson both as a receiver and defensive back.
“He was a joy to coach,” Rodney Pruett said. “He led by his actions,” pairing well with fiery, vocal Ferguson. “We’re going to miss them tremendously” along with senior receivers Kealin Goode and Trey Martin and 320-pound Gamo Khan and others up front.
A basketball highlight was winning the MAC tourney, over North Buncombe in the title game in overtime. C.J. said he and Goode in OT were “lighting it up. I was mixing long and mostly short shots, getting many fast-break points.” Conditioning helped. Coach David Rhoney, who has won over 300 career games, “made us run a lot. He says to keep pushing, don’t let up.” C.J. in track did high jump and sprint relay, as a junior.
He said his various coaches are superb motivators. He considers an eventual return to “Erwin, to coach something.” For now, his dream is to play pro football catching passes from Tom Brady, and hoops alongside two-time reigning NBA MVP Steph Curry.
C.J.’s parents are Charles “Tank” Thompson, former Asheville High football star, and Irene Thompson who shined in hoops for Erwin. His eldest brother is Ron Tune. Their younger ones are rising junior Simeon, and sixth-grader Marcus. They will keep up the Thompson talent pipeline.