Alfie Hille, left, and Nathan Simmons, rightLast weekend, Alfie Hill and Nathan Simmons, along with the rest of the University of Central Lancashire Baseball Team, travelled to Farnham Park National Baseball & Softball Complex for the BUCS National Baseball Championship. The second annual tournament would see a fantastic day of play before weather postponed Sunday’s competition, with both players contributing to UClan’s three wins during Saturday’s play. 

Hill and Simmons are just two of the hundreds of players who made the trip, represented their University, and played their hearts out, but they both also represent a first for British university baseball – they are the first known athletes to receive a scholarship from a British university specifically to play baseball. 

Both Hill and Simmons started playing baseball in their early teens in their native Brighton, suiting up for the local club’s youth teams. Simmons was introduced to baseball by watching it on TV and online, while Hill had a bit of a different journey.

“My family convinced me to go for a walk in Preston Park, which I didn’t want to do – and I came across training,” recalled Hill. “They were doing try-outs, and I asked the coaches [Robin Banerjee and Jared Hendrickson] if I could join. We started playing catch, and it went on from there!”

Both Hill and Simmons became regulars with Brighton, and their strong work ethic and developing talent caught the eye of the Great Britain National Team Programme.

“There was a tryout for the U-15 GB team, who were competing in Belgium that year,” recounts Hill. “Liam Carroll (former GB Manager, now Manager of the Single-A Salem Red Sox) was the head coach, and neither of us thought we were going to make it. We both got in, and then went to Belgium – it was a really awesome experience for our first GB Trip overseas.”

As part of the GB programme, Simmons and Hill moved up from the U-15 team to the U-18s, led at the time by Jonathan Rodriguez – a move that would lead both players to UClan.

“We had played with the [Lancashire] Legends Team (run by Rodriguez) in the National Baseball League for the previous three years, so we knew him well,” said Hill. 

“His training was really good, and he had just started working at UClan, and asked us ‘Hey, do you want to go to university and get the first ever baseball scholarship?”

“Looking at the university and seeing the facilities, it’s a growing university, especially on the sports side of things,” Simmons elaborated. “We were looking to be a part of that, and with my chosen degree (Motorsports Engineering) it was a good fit.”

Rodriguez, meanwhile, had identified Hill and Simmons as two key players to build the baseball and softball programme at UCLan around.

“Starting this program from scratch, and knowing this scholarship was available to GB players I did my best to identify three things,” said Rodriguez. “Which individuals from the British baseball landscape would benefit the most from UCLan and the sports scholarship? Which individuals from the British baseball landscape would benefit the most from UCLan and the sports scholarship? Who had the playing ability to come in and help the program compete for BUCS national championships immediately?”

Talent wasn’t the only consideration for Rodriguez, however, as one key factor was always at the forefront of his consideration.

“Character was of the utmost importance. Who had the right character to help build the environment and culture of the club in its infancy - that was a question I kept coming back to, and Alfie and Nate were the two players who could contribute to the club’s culture on and off the field right away.”

Alfie Hill Pitching at the 2023 BUCS National Baseball ChampionshipBefore Hill and Simmons could apply for scholarships, however, two important things had to happen: They had to get into UClan, and the scholarships had to exist. While the players took care of the first task, it was Jonathan Rodriguez who led the charge on the second. 

The University of Central Lancashire has a number of sports-focused scholarships, available at three different tiers: Bronze, Silver, and Gold, each corresponding with a monetary amount per semester. Over the past few years, there has been a concerted effort to expand the scholarships to other sports. Kate Youngman, Sport and Community Development Manager at UClan, detailed the efforts:  “Over the last 2-3 years, our scholarships have been enhanced, with six sports designated as a focus area. While baseball and softball fall outside of the ‘major’ sports, we were very interested in developing them.”

With the opportunity to make an impact on the sports right away, UCLan’s Director of Sport Dr. Adrian Ibbetson, elaborated, “Alfie and Nathan, as part of the GB programme, had the ability to make an impact on and off the field right away. We felt very strongly that their presence would have a large influence on developing baseball as a new sport. With Jonathan [Rodriguez] able to both play and coach, we felt that we would hopefully have the basis of a good team!”

Jimmy Khan, Lead for Sport and Community Development added, “Yes, Scholarships are in place for recruitment, but also to create a sense of comradery, a sense of belonging at UCLan, and it’s worked really, really well with softball and baseball.”

With both players accepted into UCLan, and the groundwork done by Rodriguez and the Sports Development staff, both Hill and Simmons were able to apply for scholarships. 

“The process was very easy,” said Simmons. “You fill out a form, and that is assessed; after that, they give you a meeting, and you go meet all the other scholars, which is really fun. It’s great to see all the other sports and athletes – archery was there, that was really cool.”

With both applications in, Hill and Simmons got their answer – each were awarded Gold scholarships, worth £5,000 each year, which could be put towards any of their expenses.

“The best perk of the scholarship is that you can spend it as you see fit,” said Hill. “UClan obviously prefers that you spend it on sporting equipment, and a lot of it has gone to that. But, for example, as my course is Outdoor Adventure Leadership, it has really helped with expensive qualifications.”

In addition to the monetary value of the scholarship, there are a number of programmes that the athletes can take advantage of, as Hill explained, “ You get 20 free sessions with a sports physiotherapist, access to a nutritionist and then you've got a lifestyle coach – they’re really good people, and have really helped.

“I spoke with them about a month ago, and asked a few questions: ‘Hey, I wanna get top of my work. I wanna play more sports. How do I organise this better,’ and they set me up with resources, mind maps, planning calendars and more. They use the full university system to your advantage, and it’s really supportive.”

The addition of Hill and Simmons has been a boon for UClan’s baseball team, as well as the larger UCLan community.Nate Simmons batting at the 2023 BUCS National Baseball Championship

“Have galvanised a range of international students to get involved, as well as generating interest in players from Great Britain – a celebration of different paths coming together, “said Ibbetson, “They’ve managed to galvanise a really healthy, inclusive team spirit.

For Simmons, the scholarship has also helped him continue his Great Britain career, alongside a grant from SportsAid.  

“I’m very thankful for the support from both organisations; going into baseball, I wasn’t really expecting it to be big in the UK, and to play for GB, you obviously need the funding for it. If it weren’t for the funding, I wouldn’t be where I am, and I wouldn’t have those core memories that are really, really important to me. I’m just really thankful.”

Hill, who received a Backing the Best grant from SportsAid in 2020, added, “ I got new equipment, which I’m still using, and it would have paid for my travel during the 2020 season, but it’s been repurposed and is still helping me today.”

Rodriguez has been thrilled with Hill and Simmon’s impact so far. 

“Having coached Alfie and Nate for three years, they were at the top of my recruiting list. Luckily, they believed in my vision and it didn’t take much convincing. They trusted me, they trusted that UCLan and were brave enough to make the move from Brighton to Preston for the 22-23 academic school year. The rest is history I guess. It’s all manifested itself better than I could have ever imagined.”

Most importantly, though, both Hill and Simmons realise that their achievement is a major milestone in the development of British Baseball. 

“It's nice to see that baseball's finally being recognised as a sport in the UK,” said Simmons, “ From the London Series coming up to GB playing in the World Baseball Classic, it’s absolutely massive for the sport. To see it grow and to be a part of that as well is, is, is just massive. It's big. And that is something that I'm, I'm very proud of and I'm glad to be a part of it.”

Hill added, “think the biggest thing that comes from it is the inspiration that can give to other people. When we go back to Brighton on holiday, I've had parents playing from Brighton Baseball come up to me and go, ‘Hey, are you on that baseball scholarship? Because my son's been thinking about that and he really wants to go to university now.’ And it's that inspiration of the young, I think that the scholarships really provide for people because it's showing you that even if you weren't academically inclined if you didn't have the best grades, there’s still an option for you, and a course for you, and you can experience what university life it has.”

“It inspires people. It inspires me.”