When Furman cut sports, Houston players paid price

On a nondescript Monday in a quarantine full of them, the Furman baseball team gathered for the final time — 30 or so players and a four-man coaching staff connected through Zoom.

In one box was Anthony Sasso, a hard-throwing sophomore righthander with a surgically repaired elbow. One more week separated Sasso from a spot in the Paladins bullpen. The coronavirus pandemic prevented it.

Jake Crawford lurked in another corner. He gave five years to Furman, pitching some days and manning third base on every other. Crawford was the team’s oldest player, one to whom the youngsters looked with admiration.

“He’s like Mike Trout to me,” Stone Simmons said.

Inside his Houston home, Simmons reconnected with his boys. His journey to Furman seemed somewhat circuitous. Simmons excelled at Kinkaid as a senior, striking out a school-record 101 batters. His 0.74 ERA spearheaded a state championship run. Still, recruitment was muted. Tulane showed interest. Few other big schools did.

“My buddy just happened to commit to Furman for men’s lacrosse,” Simmons said. “He told me, ‘If you want a D1 school where you might be able to play freshman year, beautiful campus, great people, South Carolina, Southern hospitality-type culture, you need to look at Furman.”

Jacob Magelssen started playing lacrosse as a seventh grader and soon grew into Kincaid’s team captain. First-team all-state and all-Southwest Preparatory Conference honors arrived after his senior year. Only one big school showed interest. Magelssen committed to Furman on March 12, 2019, and encouraged Simmons to study the place.

That summer, Simmons attended the college’s camp. He threw once in front of the Paladins’ coaches. They offered him a scholarship the next week.

“It just happened to be a situation where I found a small school in South Carolina far away,” Simmons said. “It came to me as a message — God’s plan, I guess — and I took the opportunity.”

Simmons earned a spot in the Paladins’ opening weekend rotation as a true freshman. By week two, he was the Friday night starter. In three series-opening starts, Simmons yielded five earned runs in 16 2/3 innings. The pandemic prematurely ended his season on March 12, forcing many Zoom meetings.

After this one, on May 18, nothing was left to say. Coaches finished their instructions and announcements and wished the group well.

“Unless we have something urgent to tell y’all,” they said, “we’re not going to do this anymore.”

The next day, the dream died.

Simmons’ phone buzzed. There was a mandatory Zoom meeting at 2:30 p.m., and he suspected something “intense.”

“What we were planning on hearing was probably that they were going to make the decision not to bring us back in the fall and that was going to affect our season and probably not allow us to have one next year,” Simmons said. “Which, as terrible as that would be, we were all prepared to hear that or something along those lines.”

Athletic director Jason Donnelly appeared three minutes into the call. Simmons can still recall Donnelly’s shaky voice. With it, the administrator discontinued the Paladins baseball program, part of massive financial cutbacks in response to the pandemic.

“We just stared there with blank faces,” Simmons said. “Staring at the screen like, ‘What just happened?’”

Simmons shook off his shock for a second and typed a text message to Magelssen. A lacrosse team meeting was scheduled after baseball’s concluded. Magelssen discerned the news it would reveal.

That program was cut, too.

“I didn’t believe it,” said Magelssen, a midfielder. “I was so surprised. I was just, like, sitting there and (thinking), ‘This can’t be actually happening.’”

The pandemic has robbed so much from so many. Lives continue to be lost. Security is heightened. Awareness for neighbors, too. The virus’ economic effects will linger for years, crushing some smaller schools and forcing athletic departments into difficult decisions identical to Furman’s.

The school’s president took a voluntary 20 percent salary reduction. Donnelly took a 10 percent decrease, as did his head football coach and men’s basketball coach. According to the university website, eliminating baseball and lacrosse will save $5 million annually. The value of the school’s endowment has dropped “by more than $100 million” since March.

“I find it hard to believe that it’s just a financial decision. I try not to think about it too much. It doesn’t make sense to me, and honestly, I don’t have time to think about it,” Simmons said. “I’m sure it was a complicated decision, and I’m sure they had reasoning for it, too. I’m sure I could understand the reasoning for it even. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to be OK with it.”

Ninety-five student-athletes and six coaches were directly impacted. On the Zoom call, Furman baseball players asked Donnelly if fundraising, along with their parents and program alumni, could reverse the decision.

“To put it bluntly, the answer was no,” Simmons said.

Magelssen lauded Donnelly for explaining the predicament “in a very respectful way.”

Courtesy does not change the outcome. Two high school friends now face perhaps the most difficult decision of their life. Their athletic careers are on pause, aside from individual workouts in Houston. Both are in the NCAA Transfer Portal and fielding calls from coaches around the country.

Decisions presumably must come soon, leaving no time for either young man to dwell on the depression of a derailed dream.

“I feel like it’s been all go, go, go, and there’s not really time to process it,” Magelssen said. “But I’m starting to process it and understand why.

“None of us are in this alone. It’s helpful to know other people are experiencing the exact same thing you’re experiencing. I’ve been having Zoom meetings with my buddies that were on my team, and we’re all just kind of talking about what’s next.”

Magelssen might return to Furman as a student. Scholarships for all baseball and lacrosse student-athletes will still be honored. Ideally, though, he would like to play lacrosse elsewhere. He appeared twice in Furman’s first nine regular-season games before the sports world shut down. The team was 1-6, but Magelssen said the program was “turning the corner.”

“Good results were about to happen,” he said.

Simmons’ Furman tenure is unquestionably over. He spent just a semester and a half in South Carolina but will be forever indebted. Strength coach André Bernardi helped transform his body. Simmons gained 3 mph on his four-seam fastball, touching 93 by the end of fall. He has good feel for a slider and can use a changeup when needed.

After learning the program was disbanded, Simmons tweeted a highlight video and invited coaches to contact him. The popular PitchingNinja account retweeted it to more than 200,000 followers, leading to an inundation of interest.

As of Wednesday, Simmons estimated he’d received overtures from 50 coaches. Rice remains quite interested. Simmons grew up attending their baseball camps. His high school mentor, Drake Greenwood, appeared in the Owls’ weekend rotation this year. The allure of staying home appeals, but Simmons said he’s made no decision.

That he must make one at all is still irksome. Simmons fell in love with Furman, the place Magelssen first convinced him to check out. The team bond felt unlike anything he’d ever experienced. The coaching staff was a young group, even advised by legendary Atlanta Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone. The Paladins started the season 8-9 but seemed on the precipice of a breakthrough.

“We had so much potential,” Simmons said. “With that chemistry, we were going to have something special going on, which makes it all worse that we don’t have the opportunity anymore.”



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