West Xtra: University Prep standout finally lands at junior college
January 22, 2016 12:00 AM
Tom Hagerty/Polk State College
Troy Simons is leading Polk State in scoring with 17.6 points per game.
By Joe Bendel / Tri-State Sports & News Service
Troy Simons was in basketball limbo six months ago, a star player with nowhere to showcase his talents. That's when an ambitious high school teacher/assistant coach got into the act – and redirected Simons' career.
Rico Abbondanza, on the coaching staff at Brashear and a physical education teacher at University Prep, took amateur video of Simons playing in the Connie Hawkins League in East Liberty this past summer. He then shipped the video off to Polk State College coach Matt Furjanic, a Rankin native.
Furjanic was impressed. So much so that he presented a scholarship to Simons, a Hill District resident who went to four high schools – Brashear, University Prep, Imani Christian, Renaissance Christian Academy and back to University Prep – in five years.
Simons had not played basketball in two years – which is why no updated video existed – but you wouldn't know it based on his production at Polk State. He entered the week leading the team in scoring (17.6 points per game) and steals (2.1). He'd also hit the 20-point mark seven times, including games of 33, 29, 28, 25 and 24 points.
Polk State, a junior college headquartered in Winter Haven, Fla., was 15-6 through 21 games.
Furjanic still laughs at the "recruitment" of Simons, a 6-foot-1 freshman guard.
"I really didn't know much about Troy," Furjanic said. "I saw four videos of him dunking, that was it. I needed more. So, God bless Rico, he goes and films him. Rico was determined to get him into college; he was on a mission."
To be blunt, Simons was not especially optimistic about Abbondanza's plan.
"I didn't think any school would even look at the tape," Simons said. "So, I was surprised when it actually worked."
A versatile scorer with a 39-inch vertical leap, Simons is attracting the attention of Division I coaches, per Furjanic. The Polk State coach said Simons is "at minimum" a mid-major player and could potentially play at a higher level. Furjanic would know. He not only coached at Division I programs Robert Morris (1979-84) and Marist (1984-86), but has sent 26 players from Polk State into the Division I ranks in his 16 seasons. A total of 56 of his former Polk State players have gone on to receive a scholarship at various levels.
"We're getting calls from schools about him now," said Furjanic, who added that recruiting intensifies for junior college players once grades are posted after their freshmen seasons. "When people see him on tape or in person, they say, 'Hey Matt, we're going to recruit him."
Though his game still needs "polish," according to Furjanic, there is no denying the athleticism exhibited by Simons, a former high school football player. He can step back and score from beyond the 3-point line – he'd connected on three or more 3-pointers eight times entering the week – or go strong to the basket and dunk with authority.
"I've seen him dunk on forwards," Furjanic said. "He just has to get a better understanding of when to pick his spots. If he's struggling at the 3-point line, he has to attack the basket. These are things that will come to him. He's a fast-learner and a hard worker. When you criticize him, he accepts it. He wants to get better, and he's very coachable."
A portion of Simons' scoring comes from his defensive tenacity. He approaches that aspect of the game as something of a chess match.
"The way I get most of my steals is that I set the passer up and let him think he has a passing lane," Simons said. "Then, I jump it. My reaction time is quick and I can get to the ball without getting beat. Most of my steals lead to a fastbreak where I'm by myself."
At Polk State, Simons is looking for stability, something that can't be said about his high school years. He attended University Prep as a freshmen, Brashear as a sophomore and Imani Christian as a junior. He followed Imani football coach Harvey Smith to Renaissance Christian Academy for his senior year, but the school closed down. Simons sat out the rest of the year and missed a season of basketball. He returned to Imani last year, but had exhausted his athletic eligibility.
He said he originally left Imani because he was dissatisfied there. He added that he left Brashear due to a family move.
"It was hard with all the changes, but I eventually got used to it," Simons said.
Simons had planned to attend nationally renowned basketball power Montverde (Fla.) Prep this season, but coach Dante Calabria of Blackhawk High left for a professional coaching job in Italy. Calabria, however, resigned from the Italian team and is now working with legendary coach Rollie Massimino at Keiser University in Florida.
"Dante said that I have to take Troy," Furjanic said. "So here he is, thanks to a video taken on an outdoor court. In recruiting, you think you've seen it all and then something new happens. Crazy."
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