By John Feinstein
Sunday, February 22, 2009
There wasn't much doubt who the star was yesterday in American's crucial 56-50 victory over Holy Cross at Bender Arena. Garrison Carr had 28 points, 22 of them in the second half, to lead the Eagles to a win that guarantees them no worse than a tie for first place in the Patriot League regular season race.
Others chipped in nicely: Derrick Mercer had 11 points and five rebounds; Brian Gilmore added nine points and seven boards and Jordan Nichols made a spectacular play -- a steal and an assist that stopped Holy Cross's momentum after the Crusaders had cut a 13-point deficit to 49-46 with less than two minutes left.
Coach Jeff Jones expects that kind of play from Carr, Mercer, Gilmore and Nichols. He doesn't expect nearly as much from Bryce Simon -- also a senior, but unlike the other four, no longer a starter.
Simon's stat line yesterday was modest: seven minutes played, two points and two assists. During the tense final minutes, he was on the bench, his arms locked with Steve Luptak and walk-on Stephen Wilson, trying to will his teammates to victory.
"I'd be lying if I told you there aren't times when I get frustrated, when I want to be out there on the court helping my team more," Simon said. "But the way I look at it is, every minute I get to play out there is a minute I appreciate. There were times when I didn't think I would play another minute. I consider myself lucky."
That's a remarkable attitude for someone who has torn the ACL in his left knee three times in less than a year. The first injury occurred in last March's Patriot League semifinal, when Simon went up for a rebound, came down on the leg of an Army player and went down in a heap. He was coming off two of his best games of the season -- 19 points against Lafayette and 12 against Holy Cross -- and already had eight points in 12 minutes when he got hurt.
"I heard the pop," he said. "That's a feeling you never forget. I remember lying there telling myself, 'It's nothing, you'll be okay.' Deep down, I knew better."
He had to watch the championship game from the bench but still got a cut of the net after American's win over Colgate that put the school into the NCAA tournament for the first time.
"It was a bittersweet day," Simon said. "I was thrilled that we won and to feel I'd been a part of it. But having to sit there and watch hurt. I told myself, 'Next year.' "
He rehabbed the knee all summer and was on the court one afternoon early in the fall when he made a cut and thought he felt his meniscus tear. He was right, but he'd also torn the ACL again. More surgery. More rehab. He finally got back to practice in November only to hear what had now become a familiar sound when he made a spin move one day. It was the ACL, again.
"The doctors told me they could do surgery again, and I might come all the way back by next year or I might not," he said. "They couldn't guarantee it wouldn't tear again."
Simon could have redshirted had he opted for more surgery. But he is very close to the other six seniors on this team, and if there was any way to be part of this season -- to go out with them, to maybe get that chance to play in the Patriot League championship game -- he wanted to give it a shot.
Even before he was injured, Simon's story was unlikely. He grew up in the town of Syracuse, Kan. -- population 1,606 -- and was the valedictorian among the 35 seniors in the class of 2005. Even though he was 6 feet 6 and a pretty good shooter, he had no Division I scholarship offers.
"Not even a look, really," he said. "That's why I decided to go to junior college -- to see if I could improve enough to at least get someone to look at me."
He improved enough to get the attention of Jones and his staff, although it was his grade-point average -- 4.0 just as in high school -- that caught their eye as much as his jump shot. American doesn't take a lot of JUCOs, so when Jones decided two years ago he needed to add a shooter with some maturity and experience, he told his assistants to see if they could somehow find a junior college player who could shoot well and test well.
"We saw Bryce's name on one of the junior college recruiting reports and it noted that he had a 4.0 GPA," Jones said. "I thought he was worth checking out. Once we saw tape on him, we were sold."
The small-town kid fit in very well right from the start and worked his way into the starting lineup early in the season.
"He had really come on as the season went on," Jones said. "It took him a little while to adjust but once he did, he just kept getting better and better."
This season didn't begin for him until American's 10th game, on Dec. 20 at UMBC. Wearing a bulky brace on his knee, he came in midway through the first half and almost immediately found himself open at the three-point arc.
"I just reacted instinctively," he said with a smile. "I was open, so I shot."
The ball swished cleanly through the net, and the bench reacted as if Simon had hit a winning shot.
"It gave me chills," Jones said. "It wasn't just the bench, it was all our people -- family, friends -- behind the bench. They all knew what Bryce had gone through to get to that moment."
Said Nichols: "It was like something out of a movie. First possession, first shot -- swish."
Carr insisted it wasn't that big a deal.
"Bryce making a shot -- that's normal, it's what he does," he said, smiling. "Now if he'd dunked, that would have been something different."
Simon has played a limited role since that night -- averaging just less than 10 minutes a game, producing three points and one rebound a game. His GPA also has slipped since junior college -- it's only 3.8 -- but he's well on his way to a degree this spring and a postgraduate job in coaching, which is what he has always wanted to do with his life.
"He'll be a good coach," Carr said. "People can see how he's helped us on the court, spelling Brian [Gilmore] and hitting from outside when we need him. What they don't see is how he's used the time he's been hurt to learn more about the game. He really is like another coach for us."
Yesterday, after American missed 16 of its first 17 shots, Simon came in, made a nifty ball-fake and found Carr open in the corner. Carr's three-pointer finally unfroze the Eagles, and they began to roll. A moment later, Simon made a nice backdoor cut, and Nick Hendra found him for a layup. All in a day's work -- albeit a relatively short one.
"The Army game could have been my last one," Simon said. "For me, being out there now is like getting to be a little kid for a little while longer. I know I'm limited in what I can do, and Coach Jones has talked to me to make sure I'm not down about not getting that many minutes.
"I'm not down at all. I don't have a single regret about my decision."
He smiled. "I want another cut of net in March," he said. "Only this time, I want to get it wearing my uniform."