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#BP15: Terps pull for Billy Phillips, recruit with cancer

The Terps have an inspiring motivation to advance to their first College World Series.

When the nurses at Christiana Hospital heard the screaming coming from Room B30, they rushed in, again and again.

Across Billy Phillips' hospital bed late Monday night at the Newark, Del., facility, they saw the glow of a television. The Maryland baseball team was playing UCLA in the NCAA Division I tournament. It was the decisive game of the Los Angeles regional, and the score was close, and it was just excruciating.

Seeing his visitors, Phillips would have to apologize. "Oh, no, it's just the game," he would tell the nurses, a friend recalled, Phillips explaining that one day, hopefully soon, he would join the team wearing the white ball caps with the "#BP15" in gold lettering stitched onto the back. He knew what the message stood for — Billy Phillips, Class of 2015 — and now the Terps were hanging on against the tournament favorite Bruins. Phillips yearned to see them advance, so he had yelled as if they could hear him from almost 3,000 miles away.

He was all right, he told the nurses. It was the game that had him worried. Not the leukemia.

"I don't think the nurses are too fond of me tonight," he texted Frank Cooney, the friend and his former summer-league coach.

Maryland would move on, a 2-1 win sending the Terps to play Virginia in this weekend's NCAA super regional, and with them a simple message of support they wear proudly each game: #BP15. Across Delaware and College Park and the baseball community that would hear his story, what Phillips stands for is not so easily explained.

A grim diagnosis

In mid-March, St. Mark's (Del.) played Gloucester Catholic (N.J.) in a preseason scrimmage. In College Park, Jimmy Belanger waited to hear how it went. Phillips, a senior, was scheduled to pitch for Saint Mark's; John Murphy, another incoming Maryland recruit, was to take the mound for Gloucester Catholic.

After the game, a scout called Belanger. Phillips had pitched, he told the Terps' associate head coach, "and he stunk." The left-hander's pitch velocity was 78 to 82 mph.

"I'm like, 'Ah, jeez. That's not good,'" Belanger recalled Wednesday in College Park.

The next day, the scout called again: Actually, it wasn't Phillips. It was another left-hander. Phillips was out sick.

Belanger was confused. When he had talked to Phillips the week before, the kid was leaving a basketball tournament and feeling good. As the Terps' team bus chugged toward Elon for a March 17 game, Belanger called Phillips and his mother, Michelle, wondering what was wrong.

Strep throat had been one early diagnosis. But leg pain persisted, and Phillips didn't look the same. On March 10, the blood work came back. The faint echo of family history was heartbreaking. In 2011, Bill Phillips, Billy's father and a former pitcher at Harford Community College who had gone on to play three seasons in the Los Angeles Dodgers' and Chicago Cubs' organizations, died of cancer. He was 46.

Now his eldest son, Michelle Phillips told Belanger, was also sick. It was acute lymphocytic leukemia, a cancer of blood-forming cells in the bone marrow that can spread to other organs.

Said Maryland coach John Szefc: "You hear about people that have leukemia, but until it really hits home with someone that you know, you might not do a whole lot of research on it, because you don't really have to."

Said Belanger: "You don't know how to react to that type of thing."

Said Cooney: "A lot of tears in that original phone call."

#BP15 begins trending

When Phillips was diagnosed, the first thing he told his mother was "We got this." He couldn't have known then how many people would adopt the mantra as a rallying cry.

On March 16, Cooney posted a message on Twitter. "#BP15 … get it trending," he wrote, tagging several of Phillips' B2B Bombers summer-league teammates in the tweet.

About an hour later, Tyler Beede, a former Vanderbilt pitcher and the 14th overall pick in last year's First-Year Player Draft, told Phillips to "stay strong." At the end of his message, since retweeted more than 150 times, was "#BP15."

The Maryland baseball team's account soon added a message of support. So did Szefc. Coaches at Indiana and Campbell posted the hashtag. Players from across the country joined the chorus. Friends tweeted #BP15 to say that they loved him, admired him, were praying for him.

"From there," Cooney said, "it really just took a life of its own."

A teenager whose small fame was limited mainly to the ballparks of the Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association, Phillips would have to briefly lose the sport he loved to find something more significant. From Wilmington, through Philadelphia and up to Boston, where Cooney works as an associate scout for the Kansas City Royals, #BP15 trended on Twitter.

The outpouring transcended age, geography, even high school rivalries. A day after Phillips' girlfriend, Kelly Kaczmarczyk, set up a fundraiser to help the family pay for medical bills, the GoFundMe account had contributions from over 300 people totaling over $24,000. The goal was $75,000. Two-and-a-half months in, as of Thursday night, The Billy Phillips Fund had raised $83,077.

Terps show their support

The Terps didn't donate a penny. They couldn't. When it comes to improper benefits, the NCAA doesn't make exceptions. Not even for Phillips.

There would have to be another way. In years past, Maryland players had shaved their heads to raise awareness for breast cancer. This time, the answer was right in front of them: #BP15. Phillips had signed his letter of intent only months before, in November, and had hung out with the team just once, during an official visit in the fall, but still — he was family. They'd stich the message onto the back of their hats. They'd take Phillips with them wherever they went.

"Even though he's not here yet, he's still one of our brothers," sophomore pitcher Mike Shawaryn said. "If we can show support now and do all we can, legally-wise, at the end of the day, that's going to be more helpful."

So the Maryland coaching staff visited Phillips in his Fairfax, Del., home in late March, telling him that his future in College Park was secure, whether he was pitching or not. LaMonte Wade (St. Paul's) followed him on Twitter. Shawaryn began to text him, talking about high school life and answering questions about college. And before every game, the Terps have said a prayer for Phillips, asking that he receive the strength necessary to persevere and maintain his belief.

"I cannot say enough about these coaches and this program," Michelle Phillips said in a text message. "Their success on the field is no surprise to me because the character off the field is exceptional."

Billy Phillips, who was not available to comment, is "feeling pretty well these days," his mother said. He missed all of his senior season, undergoes intermittent chemotherapy, and his timetable is uncertain — "one day at a time," as Michelle Phillips puts it. But he has regained much of the weight he lost during his initial 35-day stay at Christiana Hospital, and they hope to find an appropriate donor for a bone-marrow transplant over the next few months.

Until then, for as long as his good fortune allows, there is Maryland baseball. And because Phillips aspires to normalcy — he was cleared to attend prom with Kaczmarczyk after reaching certain goals in his treatment — he has begun to think about what most kids his age do: a summer road trip.

After Maryland beat UCLA on Saturday night, "his wheels started turning," Cooney said. If the Terps could upset the Bruins again, as they did, then get past the Cavaliers, the College World Series was next.

So in a group text with Cooney and Zach Guth, another incoming Maryland recruit, a plan was hatched: If the Terps make it to Omaha, Neb., for the eight-team NCAA championship next weekend, they would be there with them. If the underdog could continue its unlikely fight, Phillips would be reunited with the team with the #BP15 hats, and no one would care if he yelled and screamed.

jshaffer@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jonas_shaffer

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NCAA Super Regional

Maryland at Virginia

Best-of-three schedule

(All games at Davenport Field in Charlottesville)

Game 1: Friday, 4 p.m., ESPNU

Game 2: Saturday, 3 p.m., ESPNU

Game 3: Sunday, 3 p.m., ESPN2 or ESPNU

(Winner advances to College World Series in Omaha, Neb.)

Series record: Maryland is 76-101-1 all-time against Virginia.

Last meeting: June 9, 2014, in the Super Regional. Virginia won, 11-2, to take the series 2-1.

 

Terps

Player to watch: CF LaMonte Wade

Pitcher to watch: RHP Mike Shawaryn

Of note: Maryland, which is making its second ever appearance in the Super Regional, was eliminated by Virginia at this stage last season.

Cavaliers

Player to watch: C Matt Thaiss

Pitcher to watch: RHP Connor Jones

Of note: LHP Nathan Kirby, who has been out since April 17 with a lat strain, could return to the rotation. The preseason All-American has a 2.28 ERA in 10 starts this season.

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