[dream piano – music game]Renaissance: Stone Simmons has found a home at Mississippi State after Furman program cut

  OMAHA, Neb. — In May 2020, with his players settling nicely into COVID-19 protocol after more than two months of the pandemic, Furman University baseball coach Brett Harker made a decision: No more team meetings unless it was urgent.

  The next day, Harker called a team meeting.

  Freshman pitcher Stone Simmons and his Paladin teammates didn’t know how to take it. They knew something was up, but would it be bad news?

  Logging into the Zoom call, Simmons saw all his teammates, every coach on Furman’s staff and several administrators they didn’t know. Right away, the school staff got down to the point: Because of budget concerns, Furman’s baseball program, along with its men’s lacrosse team, had been eliminated, effective immediately.

  All the players on the call went quiet, processing the news.

  “I think it was a shock to just about everyone,” Simmons said.

  But in a little more than a year, the right-hander has gone from a man without a baseball future to playing on the nation’s biggest stage. Simmons announced his transfer to Mississippi State not two weeks after his world was turned upside down, and he hasn’t looked back as he and the Bulldogs vie for a national championship at the College World Series.

  “Overall, it’s been a great process, it’s been a whole lot of fun, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” Simmons said.

  While at Furman — located in Greenville, South Carolina — Harker didn’t typically exhaust much effort recruiting in Texas.

  So he got lucky when Simmons, a Houston native, came to the school for a camp and found a perfect fit.

  “He really loved our coaching staff and what our school offered,” Harker said. “We hit the jackpot on him.”

  That was evident early as Simmons made a point to improve his game from his very first semester on campus. Already touting a good slider, he worked with senior lefty John Michael Bertrand on improving his fastball command, asking anyone who would listen, “How can I get better? Who can help me with this?”

  Simmons also came to the weekly Bible study sessions Bertrand organized in the players’ lounge. The Paladins in attendance worked on separating their on-field success or failure from their worth, something Simmons understood right away.

  “I think Stone knew that coming into college, which is a huge head start for a lot of guys,” Bertrand said.

  Simmons started on Saturday in the Paladins’ first weekend series, a big spot for a true freshman. The next week, he moved up to Friday, but before taking over that prime spot, he sent a message in his team’s group chat.

  “Hey guys, I know I’m a true freshman, but just get behind me,” Simmons wrote. “I’m going to try to put us in a position to win. I want y’all to have confidence in me, and I just want y’all to be able to play loose and not have to worry about anything.”

  He delivered a better start than the week prior, striking out six over five innings and allowing just one run. He went seven strong against Fordham in his next outing before another five-inning appearance against Campbell on March 6.

  Six days later, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down Furman’s season. Simmons’ first year of college was abruptly over, but he’d posted a stellar ERA of just 2.91.

  His teammates and coaches discovered other talents, too. Simmons had an electric keyboard in his dorm room, and Bertrand found the freshman was a “whiz” at Guitar Hero.

  Harker often had freshman and sophomore players over to his house, and when Simmons stepped into the living room, his eyes went straight to the little piano handed down from Harker’s great-grandmother. He sat down and began to play.

  “It was just absolutely unbelievable that a kid can hop over and start playing classical piano music and then hop on a mound and throw 94 miles per hour,” Harker said. “It’s pretty special.”

  Simmons’ talent is why he earned a nickname from Harker: “Renaissance man.”

  Perhaps that’s fitting. Renaissance, after all, means rebirth.

  Before logging off the Zoom call that changed his life, Simmons snuck a glimpse at Harker. The coach looked devastated — and for good reason.

  A Greenville native, Harker got the chance to coach his alma mater in July 2016, trying to find success at a hometown program that had been around since 1891. Less than four years later, he was out of a job (though Furman kept him under contract for the next school year) and Furman baseball was no more.

  “It’s as hard as it gets,” Harker said. “I can’t imagine something being harder as a coach short of something tragic like a death or something.

  “It was the death of a program,” he added. “It’s not something that a lot of people ever experience, and it’s hard to put into words.”

  Almost immediately, the ashes of that program began to scatter.

  Simmons put his name in the transfer portal the next day, as did most of his teammates. His phone began to ring off the hook: Texas came calling, as did several other Big 12 schools and some Southeastern Conference programs. Schools showing interest liked the fact Simmons was a weekend starter — with solid numbers to boot — as a freshman.

  “I started realizing, ‘Oh, shoot, I can actually go almost anywhere I want,’” Simmons said. “‘I’ve just got to lock into the process and make sure I make the right decision here.’”

  When Mississippi State showed interest — head coach Chris Lemonis FaceTimed Simmons to walk him through the team’s facilities — it was a logical fit. Simmons had plenty of cousins in Mississippi, split evenly between Ole Miss and MSU. But his grandmother Karen Stone, Simmons’ “favorite person in the world” went to school in Starkville, and Simmons always leaned toward the Bulldogs. (Stone’s late husband — Simmons’ grandfather — is his namesake.)

  A connection between Mississippi State pitching coach Scott Foxhall and Harker helped Simmons find a home. Foxhall was Harker’s pitching coach at the College of Charleston, and two are as close as a player and coach can be. Harker even named his son after Foxhall.

  “When all this went down, I wanted Stone to be with someone that I trusted and who I knew could help develop him and look after him,” Harker said. “It all kind of fell into place.”

  On May 29, 11 days after Furman’s program was shut down, Simmons committed to Mississippi State.

  He was one of only a few Paladins to find a home at a Power Five program, all of them pitchers. Bertrand pledged to Notre Dame as a graduate transfer in April 2020, before the shutdown, while Jordan Beatson headed to Michigan State and Rob Hughes to Clemson. Right-hander Matthew Marchal also stayed in his home state, heading to a smaller school: Wofford College in Spartanburg. Two relievers even remained at the school, choosing Furman over continuing their baseball career.

  To Simmons, it’s an understandable decision. He said if the program still existed, he never would have transferred.

  “We had something really good going at Furman,” Simmons said. “We had great team chemistry, and we loved each other.”

  As soon as he committed to Mississippi State, Simmons started getting hundreds of messages on social media: Bulldogs fans wishing him well at his new school.

  It was further validation he’d made the right choice.

  “It’s the best feeling in the world,” Simmons said. “Playing in front of this fanbase is hard to beat, and I think that’s one of the things that sold me, too.”

  Simmons said many people thought being from Furman might make him unable to handle the pressure of playing under more than 14,000 people at Dudy Noble Field. He said it was scary at first, but by staying laid back and keeping his heart rate down, he’s been able to handle the pressure.

  “I think I got used to it pretty well, and I don’t really let it get the best of me very often,” Simmons said.

  Earlier in June, Bertrand got a chance to see that atmosphere, greet his old teammate and play a big role when the Fighting Irish visited Starkville for NCAA Super Regionals. The lefty started Game 1 and came out of the bullpen in Game 3, ending up pitching against Simmons in the fifth inning of that winner-take-all game. The two met up to talk during pregame warmups, and Bertrand even got brunch with Simmons and his parents.

  “I think that’s the ultimate dream: to be able to play the game you love against one of your great friends,” Bertrand said.

  For Harker, even after the painful end of his old program, there’s a bit of a happy ending. He volunteered this year as pitching coach for his alma mater, Hillcrest High School in Simpsonville. On June 4, the Rams won the state championship in South Carolina’s largest division — the first baseball title in school history.

  Simmons, too, is living a fantasy with Mississippi State. He’s been an important piece of the Bulldogs’ bid for their first national title just 13 months after Furman’s program ceased to exist.

  “It’s unbelievable,” he said. “It’s a childhood dream of mine, and especially recently it’s become more of a reality. I don’t know if I’ve really understood what’s going on. It’s crazy.”

  And when Simmons jogged out to the mound for the eighth inning Tuesday against Virginia, his Furman friends took notice.

  He checked his phone after the Bulldogs’ 6-5 win to find photos and videos of himself pitching in the team’s old group chat as the Paladins took pride in their former standout.

  “It’s an awesome experience,” Simmons said, “being able to be connected with teammates who aren’t my teammates anymore.

  “I love those guys, and I wish them all the best,” he added.

  Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.

    copyright@HK Information|Beijing icp keep on record 05000846number
HK Information