When Mitch Thompson encountered a crossroads in his life in early 2012, he turned to the cross and found peace.

His faith could have wavered, and nobody would have blamed him. It wasn’t an easy time. In February of that year, Baylor severed ties with Thompson, who had served the program for 18 years as an assistant on Steve Smith’s staff.

Baylor termed the move a “reclassification.” It’s a cruel twist of legalese found in many coaching contracts, but everyone knew what it really was: Baylor, for all intents and purposes, had fired Thompson. The partnership between he and Smith had stopped working.

Even in a career path as typically nomadic as coaching, losing a job can be terrifying. But Thompson found comfort in his Christian faith.

“I think the whole time that God had a plan, and whether I liked the situation I was in or not I needed to get to the point where I trusted God to open up the right doors,” he said. “I felt like I had worked really hard over the years, that I had a good name and that doors and opportunities were going to open up. And they did.”

Those open doors have led Thompson to some dream destinations in the three years since. He spent a year scouting for the Kansas City Royals, his boyhood favorite team, then was hired as McLennan Community College’s head baseball coach in the summer of 2013.

In his first year at the helm of the Highlanders, Thompson piloted his new program to within two outs of the Junior College World Series. It was a strong debut effort, but Thompson topped it with a scene-stealing second act. Under his watchful eye, MCC broke through to reach that JUCO World Series stage in 2015, ending a 32-year drought. The Highlanders stormed all the way to the national final before falling to Northwest Florida State.

Thompson’s deft leadership in restoring MCC baseball to past glory made him the Tribune-Herald’s choice for the sixth annual Sportsman of the Year Award. The honor recognizes someone who impacted Central Texas athletics in a significant way over the course of the calendar year, while personifying a spirit of character and sportsmanship.

That’s Mitch to a tee, said MCC athletic director Shawn Trochim. The guy comes to work with a smile on his face.

“He’s a breath of fresh air,” Trochim said. “He just brings an enthusiasm to the athletic department. He always comes ready and willing to go to work, and makes my job easy. In fact, his enthusiasm makes me want to work harder.”

After his job ended at Baylor in 2012, Thompson uncovered several baseball opportunities. He accepted a scouting position with the Royals, and experienced a dream run in his first year in that profession. Kansas City selected five of Thompson’s prospects within the first 20 rounds of the 2013 draft, then spent $3 million signing those players. For nearly three decades Thompson had developed a keen eye for talent as a college recruiter, so it made sense that he could handle a similar gig as a scout.

Yet one major problem arose. Thompson missed his family, his wife Amber and teenaged daughters Mary Conley and Caroline. He felt as though he needed to readjust his priorities.

“For 18 years, I gave my heart and soul to Baylor baseball,” Thompson said. “And to building it and working for it. Then all of the sudden you have to figure out, ‘You know what, that was great, but you’re not that anymore. Who are you?’ You know who I am? I’m Amber’s husband. And I’m Mary Conley and Caroline’s dad.”

Family ties prevented Thompson from taking a coaching position in a new city. His kids were plugged in at their schools and church, and he didn’t want to uproot them.

But the position with the Royals put him on the road roughly 120 days out of the year. He desired to keep his family in Waco, but he also wanted to be there to witness their lives. So when the coaching position at MCC opened prior to the 2014 season, Thompson couldn’t apply fast enough.

“We had a lot of candidates from all over the U.S., but obviously with Mitch being local, we knew a little bit about his credentials,” Trochim said. “We knew what he’d been able to do at Baylor, and it turned out to be a good fit for the baseball program, a good fit for the athletic program and a good fit for the school.”

Not to mention a pretty comfy fit for Thompson, like a custom-made baseball glove. He has quickly developed a fondness for all things MCC. He praises Trochim’s willingness to green-light big ideas. He appreciates the support of the administration, all the way up to school president Johnette McKown. He calls his coaching staff of Chris Berry and Zach Dillon “the best in junior college baseball.”

Thompson has always had a knack for surrounding himself with talented people. He gets a charge out of looking not just at a ballplayer but past and through him, into the future, to project what he might become.

“The fun part for me has always been trying to see what a kid is going to be not just now but what he’s going to be down the road,” Thompson said. “Can you see it and help him get there?”

Through his network of contacts, Thompson has stockpiled an assortment of powerful prospects in his short tenure at MCC. Over the past two years, the Highlanders have sent 20 players on to Division I schools, another five players to smaller four-year programs and five more to the professional ranks.

All that talent came together last season to produce MCC’s most successful campaign in three decades. Through 20 games, MCC didn’t necessarily look like a World Series contender, with a 12-8 record. But Thompson found ways to motivate the team, including passing out green plastic army men to players who accomplished the little things, the grunt work, necessary to win a game.

And win MCC did. The Highlanders heated as the summer months approached, winning the regional title with a 10-2 victory over Odessa. That sent MCC on to the juco baseball mecca of Grand Junction, where they maintained their sizzling play to win four games and reach the national championship game.

Though that final didn’t pan out as hoped for the Highlanders — Northwest Florida used a six-run fourth inning to surge to a 15-1 win — the boys from Waco still came home happy. Thompson called it “as much fun as I’ve ever had.”

“To get out there and experience that, and our guys took it like, ‘Hey, we’re out here for business but we’re going to have a great time,’” Thompson said. “They played loose and we had fun. We were just competing. And had a chance to play in the (title) game.”

Thompson’s eyes light up as he considers taking another swing at a national title in 2016. He is performing his dream job with people he enjoys working with and he’s doing it in his adopted hometown. Even the grass at Bosque River Ballpark looks green and lush, despite winter’s impending arrival.

What more could a guy want?

“I look at it and go, ‘You know what? This is how it’s all supposed to work out.’ I’m over here, I’m getting to do something I love, I’m getting to impact kids’ lives and I’m getting to make a difference,” Thompson said. “I knew from the time I was in the eighth grade that this is what I wanted to do. I wanted to coach college baseball.

“Because I saw the impact that coaches had on my life, and I said, ‘I want to do that.’ I’ve worked real hard for 25 years coaching college baseball, but I’ve never worked a day in my life.”

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