Thornwell put little Lancaster on the map, and town returns that with love

Sindarius Thornwell's high school coach remembers his first practice

Ricardo Priester, head basketball coach at Lancaster High, describes Sindarius Thornwell's first practice in 9th grade and how proud he is of the role model he has become.
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Ricardo Priester, head basketball coach at Lancaster High, describes Sindarius Thornwell's first practice in 9th grade and how proud he is of the role model he has become.

On his first day of practice at Lancaster High School, Sindarius Thornwell came to the gym in less than an aggressive mood.

He had just come off a successful run playing in the Amateur Athletic Union. He was late. He was lethargic. He was going through the motions.

“He had an attitude of ‘I’m here. We should all be happy,’ ” his coach, Ricardo Priester, said Tuesday, sitting in a conference room at Lancaster High. “If you don’t play hard ... then you have not earned the right to put that jersey on. So ... I told him to take those shorts off, take that jersey off and get out.

“He got the message, came back the next day, and the rest is history,” Priester said.

Thornwell, through dogged defense, slashing drives and a blue-collar work ethic, has earned SEC Player of the Year honors. The 6-foot-5 guard, sporting the No. 0 on his jersey instead of the No. 3 he wore at Lancaster High, has led South Carolina’s men’s basketball team to its first Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament – and now the Final Four.

“He wants to win every competition, every drill,” Priester said. “You’re used to stories like this from Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles. But from Lancaster? It’s special.”

The Lancaster Bruins are the focal point for sports in this town of about 10,000 people, located about 40 miles south of Charlotte. Like many small towns in South Carolina, it is a former textile mill community that has fallen on challenging times. At one point, Forbes magazine described Lancaster as “the most vulnerable city in America” because of job losses in the once thriving mills. The last mill closed in 2008.

Since athletics director Mark Strickland arrived in the 1980s, the enrollment at Lancaster High has dropped from 2,000 to 1,300.

“But its still a tight-knit town,” Strickland said. “A proud town.”

It’s LANK-a-ster

Beyond former president Andrew Jackson, whose birth place is still debated, Lancaster hasn’t had many celebrities – Playboy playmate Crystal Smith, an astronaut, Charles Duke, and Olympic gold medalist Shawn Crawford.

Thornwell is providing refreshed star power.

Robert Howey, who has covered sports for The Lancaster News for nearly 40 years, said, “It’s just been amazing to see it. Sindarius loves Lancaster and Lancaster loves Sindarius.”

And by the way, the town’s name is pronounced LANK-a-ster.

Strickland, the high school’s AD, remembers a moment in the victory over national basketball powerhouse Duke when the announcer said Thornwell was from Lancaster.

“I looked at my wife and she looked at me and said, ‘They did it right,’ ” Strickland said. “It’s a source of pride here. Most people wouldn’t have got it right.”

As you approach Thornwell’s modest, but tidy, brick home on Victoria Street, you are met by perhaps the biggest pit bull anyone has ever seen. They call him “Kuntry.”

It’s Thornwell’s dog now. But it is named after his uncle, DaJaun Thornwell, who everyone called Big Kuntry.

DaJuan, who passed away in September 2015 at age 42, was Thornwell’s father figure and mentor. DaJuan was a huge man both physically and in his support for young athletes in Lancaster.

“It was like Sindarius was his son, too,” said Qua’Shawn Blair, Sindarius’s cousin and DaJuan’s son. “It was an unbreakable relationship.”

Sendarius Thornwell played quarterback for the high school football team his ninth grade year, until he met up with a future Gamecock football player. His family tells the story.

Flattened as a quarterback

Sindarius was an all-around athlete, competing endlessly with his brother, Quantavius, or Tay, who speaks basketball like a head coach and at 5-foot-9 had the unenviable task of drilling his older brother one-on-one.

“I just fouled him every time,” Tay said. “That’s why he’s so good at free throws.”

Tay remembers his brother started at quarterback as a freshman for Lancaster High. That is until Brandon Shell, a defensive tackle from Goose Creek who would go on to play offensive tackle for the Gamecocks, creamed him after a handoff.

“He said, ‘I quit, I’m not playing football anymore,’ ” Quantavius said, laughing

It was DaJuan who convinced Sindarius to attend basketball powerhouse Oak Hill Academy in Virginia. While valuable to his basketball career, the decision convinced Sindarius to pick South Carolina over suitors like Florida, Ohio State and Syracuse.

“He wanted to come home where everybody knew him, everybody loved him, and we could go to the games,” Tay said.

Sindarius’ mother, Sharicka Thornwell, got to see her son play Marquette, but her mother, Johnnie Thornwell, had a stroke during the game and she had to return to Lancaster.

“She’s in rehabilitation now,” said Sindarius’s sister Quasheka, who stays home and watches the games on television to be with her grandmother. “Sindarius has talked to her. But he can’t come home until basketball is over.”

Sharicka also went to New York for the Baylor game, but came home before the regional final against Florida. She plans to attend the Final Four game Saturday against Gonzaga, and, if the Gamecocks advance, the national championship game.

“And we’re going to win,” she said. “It’s been a wild ride. But I’m so happy. It’s all everyone here is talking about.”

The biggest basketball stage

The Lancaster chamber of commerce has asked people to fly Gamecock flags and show other signs of support – even Clemson fans, Sharicka said.

Strickland, the athletics director, said there is even talk of a parade, or a Sindarius Thornwell Day.

“I can see something happening down the road,” he said with a smile.

The next step for Thornwell would be a big professional contract.

“But we are already proud of Sindarius,” Priester said. “There is nothing he can do to make us more proud. (A professional contract) would simply be icing on the cake. But education is the cake.”

Priester noted that just as big an accomplishment is Sindarius making the SEC Academic Honor Roll three times.

“Not everyone can be SEC Player of the Year, but everyone can get an education.”

This run through the NCAA Tournament has been a thrill for the whole town, he said

“To see him on this stage – the biggest in college basketball – is unbelievable,” Priester said. “To know we are part of that journey is unbelievable.”