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Gorman: Well-traveled Simons seizes 2nd shot

Kevin Gorman
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Tom Hagerty | Polk State College
Troy Simons. Polk State v. Eastern Florida State College. Winter Haven, Fla. Nov. 19, 2016. Photo by Tom Hagerty.

Troy Simons never dared to dream he would be on the brink of becoming a Division I basketball player.

“To be honest, no,” he said. “I didn't even have basketball in sight in high school. I was strictly football until my dreams went down the drain. I definitely didn't dream it would be like this.”

How could he?

Simons attended four high schools in five years — Brashear, Imani Christian and now-closed Renaissance Christian before graduating from University Prep — and played only one season of varsity basketball.

Now, his story has swung from cautionary tale to fairy tale. Simons, a sophomore at Polk State in Winter Haven, Fla., is the nation's second-leading scorer in NJCAA Division I at 25.7 points a game.

The 6-foot-1 guard scored his 1,000th career point on a 3-pointer at the buzzer to beat St. Petersburg College, 83-82, on Saturday, and followed that with a career-high 43 points Wednesday against Hillsborough College.

“It's kind of weird because I didn't play high school basketball, but I'm at a junior college in Florida doing what most of the top high school recruits are doing,” Simons said. “I definitely had to prove it to myself, that I was able to play with the competition down here. I had to prove to everybody else that I wasn't going to fall off.”

Now, Simons is 15 credits and an associates degree away from becoming a surprising success story, one boosted by people with Western Pennsylvania ties.

Simons worked out with physical education teacher Rico Abbondanza, a former Lock Haven star. They made a highlight tape and sent it to former Blackhawk and North Carolina star Dante Calabria, who recommended Simons to Polk coach Matt Furjanic, a Rankin native who formerly coached at Robert Morris and Pitt-Greensburg.

“When we got him, we weren't sure what we were getting. We weren't even sure if we would take him, without him playing high school basketball,” Furjanic said. “But Troy bought in right away. Troy plays very hard. He's a gamer. He has the will to win. He's very, very competitive.”

So competitive that when Simons missed a handful of games with a broken left hand, he cut the cast off early to return in time for conference play. He hopes to surpass Eastern Oklahoma State's Jerry Hurt (26.5 points) as the top scorer in the junior-college ranks.

Blessed with a 38-inch vertical leap and a pure jump shot, Simons has learned to deal with opponents denying him the ball and double-teams on defense. He is shooting 45.9 percent from the field and 39.8 percent from 3-point range.

“The way he scores is just so natural and effortless,” said Polk freshman forward Chucky Humphries of Aliquippa, who is Simons' roommate. “He's a great guy on and off the court. Everyone loves Troy down here.”

Division I programs are falling for him, too, as Dayton, New Mexico State and Pitt are showing interest. Simons, a Hill District resident, would love to play for the hometown Panthers.

“You hope he gets into college and does well, but this is five times beyond my expectations,” Abbondanza said. “He could be as good in drills as you'd want to be, but he'd never played organized basketball. You didn't know if he could adjust to the routine of practice every day.

“Troy has done more than I ever thought he could do.”

Simons hopes to serve as an inspiration to other City League kids, especially from the Hill, that he's making the most of his second chance.

“It's a feel-good story that could have a great ending, you know?” Furjanic said. “Especially after going from school to school and not really playing in high school. He comes to a junior college, is developing and has D-I schools after him. If he graduates, the feel-good story can have a happy ending.”

An unbelievable ending, even to Troy Simons, but one befitting a storybook tale that already seems surreal.

Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

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