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Troup coach found her calling

By KEVIN ECKLEBERRY

Daily News

It was a blessing in disguise.

Carla Thornton was a freshman basketball player at Bethune-Cookman (Fla.) when she suffered a major injury, hampering her college career before it even started.

At the time, it seemed like a catastrophic blow for a player looking to make it on the college level after an exceptional prep career at Callaway High.

“I went down there, and had a chance to be the backup point guard my freshman year (in 2002),” Thornton said. “I tore my ACL the first practice, and that kind of derailed my career. But everything happens for a reason. That’s when I got into watching the game. I changed my major from marketing to education after that.”

Thornton went from playing to watching, from participating to observing, and that helped foster a passion for coaching that is still going strong.

Thornton is in her 11th season as the head coach of the Troup High girls’ basketball team, and on Friday, she’ll lead her players onto the court for the Class AAAA state-championship game against Americus-Sumter.

It all goes back to those days at Bethune Cookman when she received invaluable on-the-job training.

“My coach at the time, she let me be involved in a lot of things,” Thornton said. “She showed me the ins and out, had me watching film with her and sitting by them on the   bench. It was a great learning experience.”

After graduating from Bethune Cookman, Thornton’s intent was to remain in Florida, but the desire to be closer to an ailing grandfather brought her back to Troup County.

“My grandfather got sick, and at the time we didn’t think he was going to make it,” Thornton said. “I came home to be with him.”

Returning home also gave

Thornton a chance to be close to her mother Sybrenna Thornton, who has been there every step of the way.

Whether the games are at home or away, Sybrenna Thornton is always there behind the bench, providing a supportive presence for her daughter while also being a surrogate grandmother for the players.

“I don’t have any kids of my own, so my players are like my kids, and they’re her grand kids,” coach Thornton said. “She buys them things, and takes care of them.”

Thornton began her coaching career at Gardner Newman Middle School, and she led the Lady Mustangs to a league championship in her first year, and they made it back-to-back titles the following season.

Ricky Thrash, at the time an assistant principal at Troup High, persuaded Thornton to follow a new career path, convincing her to come to his school to become the girls’ basketball coach.

“Sometimes, it takes a challenge to bring out the best in you,” said Thornton, who grew up in West Point where some of the Troup players come from. “Sometimes you get comfortable. It was something I needed at that time in my life and in my career.”

Thornton added that “I’m from West Point even though I went to Callaway. So I thought it was a blessing in disguise. It was a chance to help people like me, people who went through struggles.”

Thornton had some early success at Troup, leading the team to a region title and a spot in the state quarterfinals in 2012.

The program then went through some lean years when wins were difficult to come by.

“The tables always turn,” Thornton said. “During that time, a lot of my coaching friends, they were telling me how great of a job I was doing, and we had two wins. But they said I see the growth in your players individually. The people in the outside don’t see that. I’ve got to thank Troup too, for being loyal during that time. And I could have left. I knew bad times were coming. But it’s more than a job.”

Those hard times seem like a distant memory now.

The Lady Tigers have reached the state tournament five consecutive seasons, and now they’re one win away from the first state championship in the history of the program.

While the competitive fire burns brightly for Thornton, she balances that desire to win with an effort to make the gym a refuge, a happy place for the players.

“At first, I was all about winning my any means necessary,” Thornton said. “You have to win. That’s all that matters. Over the course of my career I’ve learned to care more about the people. When you care more about the people, the wins will still come. They’ll give you their best because they don’t want to let you down.”

This team is particularly special to Thornton, and it would mean the world to her to be able to celebrate a state championship with them. If everything goes according to plan on Friday, that’s what will happen.

“They have high goals for themselves,” Thornton said. “Not so much me, it’s them, and how much they want to achieve it. I give them all the credit.”