Teen keeper has the golden touch
In less than a year, Cameron Thomas has risen from the third-division ranks to keep goal for the region's premier senior football team, all at the age of 16.
Two years ago, Thomas wasn't even playing in goal and, last season, he was stopping shots for Tahuna in the men's third division.
This season, he is the starting goalkeeper for Nelson Suburbs in the Mainland Premier League, playing beside former professionals at the highest level of senior football available in Nelson.
Playing for the Garin College first XI on Saturday mornings last year, Thomas was picked up by Nelson Falcons coach Davor Tavich and included in the national youth league squad as cover for goalkeeper Coey Turipa.
"Coey was a massive help in the Falcons squad. The training that Coey was giving us - the reserve keepers - was really amazing," said Thomas.
"If it wasn't for people like Coey, Ben Wright and Erik Panzer, and my parents as well, I would be nowhere near where I am at the moment. Just the training, the confidence and the support I have got has been amazing."
After a season with the Falcons, where he was in the squad but did not get any game time, Thomas was selected to play for Nelson Suburbs first XI in the Nelson first division and, with Turipa moving to play in Wellington, the goalkeeping spot in the Mainland side was wide open.
It was a tough start to the year for the Nelson Suburbs Mainland team, their worst since entering the competition. Poor results, including a record 8-0 loss at home to competition leaders Cashmere Technical meant Thomas was given an opportunity to wear the gloves for Suburbs.
Thomas debuted in a 2-1 win over Halswell United and hasn't looked back.
Since then, Suburbs have won five in a row, including last weekend's 4-0 win over Ferrymead Bays, Thomas' second clean sheet.
"I came to the game [against Halswell] as if I was going to be on the bench," Thomas recalls of his debut.
"The coach [co-coach Paul Brydon] asked me if I was ready to start and it came to me as quite a shock, but obviously I said yes."
Thomas said he was quite nervous, having little time to prepare himself.
But, as soon as kickoff came, the nerves melted away and he was focused on the game.
"You can notice the difference between Mainland and first division. It is definitely a massive step up from third division, obviously. There are no bad teams in the league, it is very competitive.
"They have got some good-quality strikers in the league but I try to focus more on my own game than the other team and just try to save whatever comes at me. When a striker gets a one-on-one or a shot comes from outside the box, I am thinking to myself that I will save it."
Thomas says he goes in to every game focused on keeping a clean sheet and having a solid all-round game, from goal kicks to working with the team's defenders.
Thomas feels like he has improved in every game, and it is a feeling shared by Brydon, who said that Thomas was growing in confidence every week.
"I have learned from every game and built on my mistakes," said Thomas. "My team-mates recognise that as well. Every game I play, the confidence levels go straight up."
Thomas said the Nelson Suburbs Mainland side had a very supportive environment. Having experienced players such as striker and Mainland co-coach Ben Wright, new Irish import Davitt Walsh and captain Ryan Stewart - to name a few - had helped him to adapt quickly to the high level.
"Ben is a great guy, a good coach and a good person to have in your team. He boosts your confidence a lot and is easy to talk to about everything football."
He said that watching what Garin College old boy Erik Panzer had achieved in football was an inspiration.
With Panzer having won a national youth league title and a football scholarship to a university in the United States, Thomas said he hoped to follow a similar path.
"Football is the most important thing in my life. I try to train as much as I can. I'd like to ideally be playing at a high level when I am older."
Given his meteoric rise over the past two seasons and seeing that he is in the box seat to keep for the Nelson Falcons next year, it isn't hard to see the precocious young talent rise even further.
- The Nelson Mail