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Handling Life’s Curveballs

After Beating Cancer, UMD Pitcher Looks for More Wins on Mound

By Annie Krakower

Curveball

Greg Fiume/Maryland Athletics

Greg Fiume/Maryland Athletics

Playing time isn’t guaranteed for redshirt sophomore Billy Phillips, as the University of Maryland baseball team added several arms since last season.

But that’s an obstacle the left-handed pitcher doesn’t mind after overcoming a much more difficult one.

“If I don’t pitch a lot,” he says, “I’m not supposed to be here anyway.”

During his senior year of high school in 2015, Phillips was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow. After weeks in the hospital and a more than yearlong intensive recovery—and with support from his UMD teammates—he made his collegiate debut last season, and he’s ready to keep the Ks coming.

For Phillips, getting back to baseball was getting back to living. His baby pictures feature him holding a baseball, and he was the only kid on his T-ball team who could hit the ball from the plate to the playground in the distance.

During Phillips’ junior year at St. Mark’s High in Wilmington, Del., the Terps’ pitching coach at the time, Jim Belanger, came out to see him.

“I probably threw the worst game that I’ve ever thrown in my life,” Phillips says. “And he called me up and was like, ‘You’re still our guy. I still want you.’ And right then and there, I was like, ‘There’s no better place than Maryland.’”

After committing to UMD, though, Phillips didn’t get to play as a senior. He woke up one morning with a terrible pain in his hip, one that never subsided. He became anemic and pale, his lymph nodes swelled up, and he lost more than 20 pounds. Blood tests revealed he had developed leukemia.

“I was actually kinda glad that they figured out what it was,” Phillips says, “because that pain was just ridiculous.”

He “kicked butt” on the introductory round of chemotherapy, and was optimistic that he might get to return for the second half of the season at St. Mark’s. But after a bone marrow transplant, he developed graft-versus-host disease, in which donated stem cells attack the patient’s healthy tissues and organs.

The Terps made his extended hospital stays a little bit easier. Head coach Rob Vaughn, an assistant at the time, drove to Delaware with other coaches to visit Phillips. The players’ caps that spring had “#BP15”—Phillips’ initials and high school graduation year—stitched on the back. In November 2015, the team participated in the Light the Night Walk for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society at Camden Yards in Baltimore. 

Phillips healed enough to arrive at UMD in August 2016. He didn’t play that season, but by last year, he had gained enough weight to be reinstated.

He still wasn’t expecting to get the ball on Feb. 18, a Sunday night game vs. Tennessee.

“I was freaking out,” he says. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m about to pitch against an SEC team right now.’”

He doesn’t remember the jog from the bullpen to the mound, but he does recall each pitch he threw to that first batter, who struck out looking. The next hitter singled over the shortstop’s head, but Phillips induced a double play to end a clean first collegiate inning—one of 20 frames recorded last season.

Now, instead of wondering if he’ll be healthy enough to pitch, Phillips is looking forward to building on that inning total. He strives to be a weekend starter.

“His desire to be great is what really drew us to him,” Vaughn says. “That sure as heck hasn’t changed.”

Maryland Today is produced by the Office of Strategic Communications for the University of Maryland community weekdays during the academic year, except for university holidays.