There was no way possible that Kali Tomlin was going to go out like this. And, she didn’t.
Tomlin, North Central’s do-it-all guard, knew something was wrong when she crashed to the court in the Lady Knights’ first round AA state playoff game at Landrum in February. While stretched out on the floor, she knew her knee did not feel right. She went to the bench and, probably, should have stayed there. Instead, a few minutes later, the senior was back in the game, albeit, not at close to 100 percent.
Several weeks later, she underwent surgery in order to repair her knee. That did not stop Tomlin’s phone from ringing with calls coming in from college coaches who were not about to abandon a 1,500-point career scorer.
In the end, just days after having been released from her surgical procedure, the North Central senior was affixing her name to a National Letter of Intent to continue her academic and basketball-playing pursuits at Coker College in Hartsville.
For Tomlin, signing day was something which many of her former coaches had predicted for her. As for the 5-foot-6 guard, let’s just say she had reservations as to whether this day would come or, if she even wanted it to happen.
“I’ve been playing basketball ever since I was little; maybe, about four or five with rec ball. I never really thought about college ball until, maybe, about my sophomore year because I wasn’t really sure whether I wanted to play sports in college or, not,” Tomlin said.
“Through rec ball and middle school, I had coaches tell me that I had the potential to be a college athlete, but I never paid them any attention. Once my sophomore year came, I started to think about it a little more and I started thinking that if I didn’t play ball in college that I would probably regret it down the road since I love the game so much.”
This past season, Tomlin ended her Lady Knight career by earning AA All-State honors which came on the heels of her being selected as the 2018-19 Region 4-AA player of the year. She ended the season with an 18.5 point per game scoring average while knocking down nearly 80 percent of her free throws for David Dawson’s squad which earned a spot in the AA state playoffs in Dawson’s second year at the helm.
Her talents on the basketball court tell just part of the Kali Tomlin story. As Dawson said of the four-year starter, she was more than just about dribbling and knocking down shots.
“Kali is the true definition of what a true student-athlete should be. She is a student first and, an athlete second. She’s top-notch at both,” he said.
“She is absolutely wonderful. Kali is one of the most determined, not just players but, students that I’ve met. She works very hard in and out of the classroom. It was an honor to have had the opportunity to have coached her the past two years.”
That torch will now be passed to Coker head coach Shannon Johnson. The Hartsville native and former USC basketball standout has won an Olympic gold medal while playing for Team USA in the 2004 Summer Games in Athens. She also played 10 seasons in the WNBA along with playing internationally during her decorated career.
Playing for Johnson, attending school close to home and being part of the Coker College community played a large role in Tomlin’s final decision.
“When I started out, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to go to Coker or, not,” Tomlin said. “Once I took my first visit there, I just fell in love with the campus. Coach Johnson was real supportive and I got to meet the team and I fell in love with the team; we clicked as soon as I met them. I just felt like it was the right fit for me.”
For all the accolades and honors which Johnson has accumulated in her career, her name is not in the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., as is Tomlin’s.
At the age of nine, Tomlin advanced to the national finals of the Elks Hoop Shoot Free Throw Contest, which were held at the Basketball Hall of Fame. Elks’ national champions have their names inscribed on the marker located in the Hall of Fame. When Tomlin won her age group, hers was added to the list.
Given her being a national champion free throw shooter not to mention her exploits on the court at North Central Middle School, Tomlin was hardly an unknown commodity when she showed up to try out as a freshman to join then-North Central head varsity coach Mitch Lowder’s program. Tomlin thought she would play junior varsity ball in order to get her feet wet. When the Lady Knights’ starting point guard, Taylor Robinson, went down with a season-ending injury, Tomlin was pressed into service.
“When I came to play here in my ninth grade year, I wasn’t sure how it was going to play out. I actually didn’t think I was going to get that much playing time, especially on varsity,” she said of her expectations four seasons ago.
“Coach Lowder told me that I was going to be on varsity my freshman year. I thought that I wasn’t going to get much playing time that year. Then, our starting point guard ended up messing her knee up in the jamboree. So, coach Lowder looked at me and told me then that I was going to have to step up the point guard position.”
Tomlin took the ball and ran with it, leading the Lady Knights in scoring that season while touching off a memorable four-year stretch on the hardwood. At the conclusion of her sophomore campaign, she was named to the All-Region 4-AA squad, an honor she would repeat as a junior and senior.
When Dawson took over for Lowder before the 2017-18 season, one of the players he knew he would be inheriting at his new job was Tomlin. Dawson said she became his security blanket and an extension of himself on the floor.
“It was very comforting. It definitely let me come in and hit the ground running knowing that I had a good foundation of players to work with when I got here,” he said of having Tomlin and others there in his first go-through as a high school head coach.
Dawson said he grew to appreciate Tomlin more and more each day. He said he may not understand how much she meant to the program until he rolls out the basketballs for the start of practice next year and Tomlin, wearing her number 24 jersey, will not be in Boonetown.
“She meant everything to our team. Kali was a leader,” Dawson said of Tomlin’s impact on the NC girls’ program. “She will always be remembered as being one of the greats not only for her accomplishments on the court, but for her personality and her leadership off the court and in the locker room. One of the biggest things that we will be missing with Kali’s departing next year will be her leadership off the court and her ability to get everyone on the same page. That’s something that, as a coach, I wish that I could always have on my team. She, sometimes, did a better job of rallying her teammates than I did.”
In her final game for the Lady Knights, in a 72-58 first round state playoff loss at Landrum, Tomlin was off to a torrid start. She scored 13 first quarter points in what, at the time, was a game in which the lead went back and forth. Then, the unthinkable happened.
As Tomlin was going up for a shot, her defender tried to block it as Tomlin was sent to the floor on the play. At the time, she thought it would be an injury which she would be able to rebound from and not miss much game time.
“I went up for my shot, she tried to block it and my leg popped,” Tomlin said of the situation. “I thought it felt weird, but I thought I just dislocated my kneecap because that is what their trainer told me.
“Their trainer brought me on the bench and asked if I wanted to go back in and I said I did. I thought the kneecap would just pop back into place. I thought I was fine. We did a few drills in the hall and he said that I was going to have to prove to him that I could go back out and play. I tried to play two to three more times and I ended up finishing the game.”
Tomlin ended the night and her NC career by scoring 20 points. A few weeks later, she underwent surgery to repair her ACL along with a torn MCL and meniscus. The rehabilitation will keep her off the court until December as she will have a redshirt freshman campaign. “It’s going to slow me down a little. I will probably miss my freshman year, but I’ll probably be back on the floor in December and we’ll go from there,” she said.
Once Tomlin is able to return to playing at Coker, Dawson said the sky is the limit for his former guard.
“I expect great things from Kali at Coker. I think that she will do very well both academically and athletically. She’s not going too far away from home so she will still be able to come back home and get a good home-cooked meal every now and then,” she said.
“I also believe that she is happy and will be comfortable with the environment at Coker. I’m going to go on the record as saying that she is going to be an All-American before she leaves Coker College.”
Before she loking ahead, Kali Tomlin looked back on her career at North Central. Even though it ended with her not at 100 percent for her final game, you get the distinct feeling that she would not change a thing.
“I’ve really enjoyed everything that I’ve been through and all the teammates that I’ve had throughout the years; they have really meant a lot to me,” she said. “I’m glad I could do this for them.”