Nearly four years in, Ohio native and Furman standout Jordan Simpson feels like an adopted son of the South. He cherishes the hospitality, the weather, the school and his teammates.
A couple of Ohio homeboys on the Paladins’ roster, and more among the student body, make the distance bearable, though a productive career that has arced upward since he arrived provides perhaps his greatest comfort.
Simpson is a four-year starter and one of the ringleaders of a young, promising team capable of challenging in the Southern Conference. The Paladins (10-13) came through a difficult non-conference stretch and won their league-opening series versus Samford, heading into a game against state rival Clemson Tuesday on ASN.
“Something that’s allowed this team to grow,” Simpson said, “is the upperclassmen have really taken a front seat and leadership aspect to show how we go hard every day in practice and how we go hard in the weight room, and how mental toughness is really something we’ve focused on this year.
“I think the learning curve is going to happen a lot quicker for the rest of the season for the young guys, because they have the groundwork and they have the foundation and they have the work ethic that it takes to succeed at this level.”
Simpson is one of the SoCon’s leading hitters (.367), 28 points better than last season. He tops the Paladins in runs batted in, hits and doubles. He is second in slugging, on-base percentage and total bases. He is the conference’s active leader in career hits, and is top-10 all-time for the Paladins in hits, home runs, total bases and RBI.
“I’m not sure that I foresaw how successful he would be offensively, but boy, he sure has been,” said Furman coach Ron Smith, in his 23rd season. “He’s worked hard. He’s had to make a couple of adjustments on his swing, and he’s done that, and he’s just a competitor.”
Simpson’s final college season includes a position switch. A three-year starter at second base, he moved to third base this season, replacing two-time all-conference performer Chris Ohmstede — the first time he’s played the position since his prep days at Cincinnati power Moeller High School.
“The one thing still bothering me the most is pop-ups,” he said. “I’m pretty confident with my ground balls and throws across the diamond. It’s a lot less work, pre-game, because you don’t have to get your hands loose, up the middle, turning double plays. I’m trying to do the best I can do to help the team win.”
Simpson is often the lone senior in a starting lineup that includes five freshmen and sophomores. The Paladins’ weekend starting rotation is presently a freshman, sophomore and junior.
“Not to make excuses,” Smith said, referring to the team’s youth, “but I think the longer we play, the better we’re going to be. I’m hoping that once the guys get their feet wet, they’ll be more confident.”
The younger Paladins have a worthy example in Simpson. He has started 191 of 197 games since he arrived in Greenville, S.C. He made the conference’s all-freshman team after batting .317 and playing solidly at second base. He raised his batting average 44 points between his sophomore and junior seasons, to .339. He also developed some extra pop, as his 14 home runs last season led the Paladins and were fourth in the SoCon.
Simpson, 6-1 and 195 pounds, credited his improvement over the past couple of seasons to experience, greater discipline at the plate, and a shortened, more compact swing. He connects more often with breaking pitches, while still looking for fastballs. He understands that a single up the middle can be as productive as driving a ball into the outfield gap.
“A lot of times during my freshman and sophomore years, I had a lot of moving parts,” he said. “I was loading back too far with my hands, or I was lunging out with my head, trying to get out in front of pitches. Especially over the last two years, I’ve made an emphasis to stay calm, and breathing and staying collected in the box, and realizing this is something I’ve done a million times. To make it as simple as possible is the easiest way to stay consistent. My swing this year is really proof of that.”
In addition to his coaches, Simpson can compare notes with his dad. Scott Simpson played college baseball at the University of Tennessee before settling back in Cincinnati and landing a dream gig for a sports-oriented kid: video and electronics coordinator for the NFL’s Bengals, running the stadium’s JungleVision and video board on game days.
“Take Your Child to Work Day was always a fun thing,” said Simpson, who has met dozens of Bengals’ players and coaches through the years. He attended the press conference where No. 1 overall draft pick Carson Palmer was introduced in 2003, and got to meet and shake Palmer’s hand.
“There’s nothing like being able to do that as an 8-10 year old kid and be enveloped in a pro-style atmosphere like that,” Simpson said. “It was pretty cool. It still is.”
Furman’s baseball program also embraced a cause near to Simpson’s heart: cancer research. His mother, Denise, survived two bouts with breast cancer and has been cancer-free for nearly a decade. The Paladins raised more than $26,000 working with the Vs. Cancer Foundation, a Raleigh, N.C.,-based outfit geared toward curing childhood cancer. They have a fundraiser scheduled April 20, in conjunction with a game against South Carolina, where Simpson and his teammates will shave their heads.
It’s all part of a fulfilling, rewarding experience for the northern transplant, who will graduate with a double major in history and religion. Teaching and coaching are the long-term goals, once baseball opportunities are exhausted.
Simpson is unsure where he will eventually land, but there are tastes from home that will always lure him. Teammate Ted Andrews’ family is affiliated with the Montgomery Inn, the renowned Cincinnati rib joint. And there is one of the city’s signature dishes.
“Every time I go home, the first meal I’m going to eat is Skyline Chili,” he said, “sometimes even before I go home to see my parents. I’ll be eating Skyline Chili ’til the day I die.”
Above and middle: Jordan Simpson leads Furman in RBIs, hits and doubles and is the Southern Conference’s active leader in career hits. (Courtesy Furman Athletics)