Each time a radar gun was leveled in his direction, Mike Tolson could feel the crosshairs.
Tolson’s recruitment moved with unusual velocity and entering his junior year at Stafford, his future on the diamond was already set. In August 2017, he pledged to accept a 75-percent scholarship to Old Dominion University.
“It seemed like a one-time opportunity,” he said.
So Tolson wasn’t terribly surprised last April, when Monarchs pitching coach Mike Marron announced he’d be making another appearance to scout him. Facing rival North Stafford, Tolson threw a complete game, striking out eight and going 2 for 3 at the plate.
The next evening, his phone rang.
It was Marron. He didn’t pull any punches—just Tolson’s scholarship offer. The difference between Division I and destabilizing disbelief? In Tolson’s case, just a few miles per hour.
“They told me that I wasn’t throwing hard enough, that they wanted to see more velocity than getting outs at this point,” he recalled.
After losing his full ride, Tolson went on an aimless one. He drove around his subdivision of Leland Hills, pondering the unfairness of it all. He drank the protein shakes. He’d done the workouts. He had the grades.
“It’s like doing a job,” he said. “You’re working overtime, doing everything right, staying after helping out and you get the pink slip. Why am I getting fired? And all they can says is ‘just because.’”
Still in a daze, Tolson delivered the bad news to his parents. At first they thought their son, never one to take things too seriously, was playing an elaborate joke.
When they realized he wasn’t kidding, “My heart sank into my stomach,” said Martin Tolson, Mike’s father.
“Me, as a mother, I cried,” Karen Tolson added.
But tears soon gave way to tenacity. Tolson punctuated his junior season with a 7–2 record with a 2.72 ERA and batted .379 with nine doubles, earning first team All-Area and all-region honors in the process.
“I was hell bent on getting my velocity up so I could get another scholarship and redeem myself,” Tolson said.
An untimely tendinitis diagnosis didn’t help. Tolson played through weakness in his rotator cuff last spring, and was told that without physical therapy, he’d never be able to throw again. Over the summer with his showcase team, the Virginia Cardinals, Tolson could only hit.
“You go from Old Dominion to not playing at all,” Stafford head coach Tommy Harrison said. “That doesn’t give you a whole lot of time.”
So Tolson started getting up early. He’d rise at 4 a.m., five days a week and drive himself to the Gold’s Gym off Route 3. Under the tutelage of Juan Piniella and Julio Mercado, former pro baseball players with Fredericksburg-area ties, he worked to improve his core and leg strength. They toned forearms and hip flexors. Not beach muscles, just baseball ones.
“When you have somebody that will put the work in, it’s impossible to say no to those guys,” Piniella said.
While Tolson hit the gym, Stafford head coach Harrison hit the phones. One number at a time, Harrison exhausted a rolodex overflowing with connections at the next level.
“ ‘I’ll make the phone call,” he told Tolson. “You put up or shut up.’ And he did, man.”
From Dayton to VMI to Norfolk State, Tolson showcased his wares both in the bullpen and with a bat. He ran a sub-seven-second 60-yard dash. But with each opportunity, he came to expect the same disheartening feedback.
“They just want to put me in a box, they don’t want me to put the whole thing on the table,” Tolson said of college coaches. “It was just hard to go through denial after denial. Yeah you’re the [district] player of the year, but you only throw 83. That was the running gag in all of this.”
One of Harrison’s final calls was to Taylor Sandefur, one of his former players who’s currently an assistant coach at Western Carolina.
As a courtesy, Sandefur invited Tolson to Cullowhee, N.C., for an informal workout over Christmas break. No promises, just a batting cage and a bullpen.
“My last resort,” Tolson said.
Western Carolina saw enough in Tolson to invite him to the program’s camp this past January. Then, on Feb. 5, he got another phone call. It was Sandefur, offering a Division I scholarship that had once seemed inevitable, and then almost impossibly elusive.
He couldn’t accept fast enough.