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Basketball/baseball Division I college athletes are no more

By Staff | Mar 27, 2020

Rod Thorn, left, and Jim McCormick dribble down the court together for a 1962 photoshoot. Courtesy photo

SHEPHERDSTOWN — Before being troubled by the coronavirus, major college basketball seasons began in mid-October and were completed by the first weekend in April. College baseball seasons showed the first games in early February and were completed in the College World Series in mid-June.

The overlapping seasons now make it virtually impossible for a college athlete to play both sports.

Years ago, the basketball season was completed by early March and the baseball season usually opened in mid- to late-March.

At West Virginia University, there were a number of basketball/baseball players. And all four of them have been inducted into the university’s Athletic Hall of Fame.

All four of them came to Morgantown from high schools within the state’s borders.

The most well-known of the basketball-playing foursome is Rod Thorn, a 6-foot-4, reed-thin forward from Princeton. So well-regarded in his playing days at Princeton High, Thorn was labeled a “natural resource” by the state legislature and implored to stay in-state and attend WVU.

He did just that, playing basketball for three seasons and finishing with a career scoring average of 21.8 and a rebounding average of 11.1. West Virginia showed a 70-18 record in Thorn’s three seasons and he completed his career scoring 1,785 points.

Thorn was a first baseman on the Mountaineer baseball team that reached the NCAA District 3 tournament in all of his seasons on that team.

Following the 1963 basketball season, Thorn was a first-round draft choice of the Baltimore Bullets and played in the NBA for eight seasons.

The best of the two-sport baseball players was infielder Paul Popovich, who batted .426 in his one season with the Mountaineers. Following the 1960 baseball season, Popovich signed a professional contract with the Chicago Cubs for $40,000.

He would spend 11 seasons in the major leagues.

A prolific scorer at little Flemington High, Popovich averaged 41.3 points a game as a high school senior. In his one season with the Mountaineers, the sophomore averaged 10.5 minutes a game and 3.3 points per game.

Bucky Bolyard came to Morgantown from tiny Aurora High in Preston County. His tenure as a Mountaineer earned him the adoration of WVU basketball fans for his all-out hustle and “team” mentality. Bolyard played his way into the starting lineup as a senior where he averaged 10.1 points a game. The Mountaineers reached the school’s high-water mark when Bolyard was a senior in 1959, finishing second in the nation after losing a hard-to-forget 71-70 verdict in the national finals.

As an infielder/pitcher in baseball he batted .413 as a junior and had an 0.75 ERA as a senior pitcher.

One of Bolyard’s backcourt basketball teammates was Ronnie Retton. Retton starred at little Fairview High before coming the short distance to Morgantown. Retton and Bolyard were often paired by Coach Fred Schaus when the Mountaineers used their fullcourt pressure defense. He averaged 14 minutes a game in his three-year career. Like Bolyard, Retton was adored by the state’s fans because of his never-ending hustle and ability to make steals or cause opponent’s turnovers in the team’s fan-favorite pressure defense.

So impressive as a baseball shortstop was Retton that he was selected a first-team All-Southern Conference player in both 1957 and 1959. His career batting average was .355. He was signed to a professional contract by the New York Yankees and toiled in their minor league system for six seasons.

West Virginia’s since curtailed baseball season began in February this year, much too early for any basketball player to join the team. The basketball schedule still had at least one month left to it.

Four Athletic Hall of Fame members — probably the last of the basketball/baseball athletes at the school.