Buffalo, NY – Making the leap from high school to college can be a major adjustment for a young adult and provide a major learning curve. Accumulating new responsibilities, adapting to new surroundings, meeting new people, dealing with the challenges of a heavy academic workload, and for some, playing sports at the next level and picking up a part-time job.
For Eric Simoncelli, all of the above were true. On the cusp of entering the Exercise and Sports Studies/Doctorate of Physical Therapy program at D'Youville College, Eric was also about to begin his D'Youville baseball career. His position was one of the most physically and mentally demanding on the diamond: catcher.
"To me, catching is like no other position in sports because of the demands of the position," said Simoncelli. "You face the opposite direction of all of your teammates. You play the game mostly in foul territory. You are completely in charge and the quarterback of the team and defense but receive almost no credit. You have to be locked in to every pitch, build a report with the pitchers, umpire and other team and read swings, other team's baserunners. It is equally physically and mentally demanding and I think that makes it unlike any other position in sports."
Prior to the beginning of his freshman year at D'Youville, Eric learned of the opportunity to volunteer at the 2012 Triple-A All-Star Game from D'Youville baseball head coach Leo Dandes, son of Rich Baseball Operations president Jonathan Dandes. The game was hosted by the Buffalo Bisons, bringing the best players in Triple-A baseball to Buffalo. Of the positions needed, catchers were in high demand due to the home run derby. With a promising young catching prospect coming to his program, coach Dandes knew who would benefit by the opportunity.
"When I originally approached him (Eric) about catching in the Home Run Derby I thought it would be a fun experience for a kid who obviously loved the game," recalled Dandes. "Seeing him take the opportunity, run with it and get so much out of it has been great. I couldn't be happier that this has worked out so well for Eric."
Run with it was exactly what Simoncelli did as the Hamburg, New York native has been tucked away down the first base line behind the home dugout for the last five years. Eric's role with Bisons has been helping pitchers find their groove as the Bisons' bullpen catcher. Beginning with the Bisons when their affiliation was with the New York Mets to their current affiliation with the Toronto Blue Jays and five managers in-between, Eric has been a reliable presence in the Bisons' bullpen.
That experience with the team and professional baseball players have allowed Eric to grow as a player, person, and leader. After spending the summer before his freshman season with the Bisons, Simoncelli came to D'Youville and set himself apart on the team and in the conference. Hitting a career best .330, Eric led the team with two home runs and 24 RBI, which set the team's single-season record. For his efforts he was named an Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference (AMCC) Second Team-All Conference selection and was an AMCC All-Academic Team member.
Over the next three seasons, Eric would amass 101 hits, 61 RBI, 25 doubles, and 114 games played; more than any player in program history. During his final season as a Spartan, the senior set three records in one game against Hilbert. He set the doubles record in the second inning of game two of the doubleheader only to break the hits and RBI records on a walk-off three-run home run.
Coach Dandes saw Eric's growth from a freshman to a senior and even into his first year as an assistant coach in the spring of 2017. His leadership and knowledge of the game greatly helped the D'Youville baseball program.
"Eric was a great leader as a player for us for four years and did a lot of great things on the field," said Dandes. "Even more impressively he has become a great teacher of the game and I know that is in no small way attributable to his time working with the Bisons and all of the great players and coaches that have been in Buffalo with the Blue Jays."
The relationship between the Bisons and D'Youville has been going on for several seasons. The team often practices at Coca-Cola Field in the fall and spring, while typically playing at least one doubleheader a year at the downtown Buffalo stadium. Eric accredits D'Youville with his opportunity with the Bisons, but the things he was able to learn from the pros helped improve himself and his teammates at D'Youville.
"D'Youville is the reason I got the position with the Bisons and through my education at the Bisons, I was able to learn a lot about how to be an athlete, leader, teammate and catcher," said Simoncelli. "From the mental side of the game to the physical skills, the Bisons helped me develop more as a player for my own career and it is thanks to Leo (Dandes) and D'Youville that I even had the opportunity."
On the diamond, Eric has been one of the best to wear the red and white of D'Youville College baseball. The opportunities the coach Dandes and D'Youville have offered him have not only helped him reach new heights in baseball, but as a student as well.
With his playing career concluding in 2016, Eric maintained his status as a leader for the program after becoming an assistant coach in 2017. Looking forward to 2018 and beyond, the role Simoncelli will play with the Bisons is up in the air, but his goals have moved to beyond baseball.
"I would like to own my own clinic and provide patients with the best environment to rehab their injuries," said Simoncelli. "An environment of cutting edge rehabilitation techniques, emotional support, and compassion to understand the patients as people and not just an injured body."
Eric is currently in the second year of the Physical Therapy Doctorate program at D'Youville. He will begin clinical rotations in 2018, limiting his availability with the Bisons.