His father had to leave Athens, but son of former UGA assistant still loves the Classic City

Jeremy Johnson
Athens Banner-Herald
Georgia pitcher Will Pearson (46) during a game against Tennessee at Foley Field in Athens, Ga., on Sunday, March 21, 2021. (photo by Rob Davis)

Phillip Pearson can’t count how many times his wife, Ashley Pearson, dropped off their middle child, Will, on UGA's campus after school.

Phillip, an assistant basketball coach under Mark Fox, and Will would hit the gym for basketball drills and then walk over to the batting cages at Foley Field. Will battled his passion for two sports for his first few years at North Oconee High School.

He played basketball as a freshman and sophomore, but decided to leave the sport his father loved to focus on baseball.

It was difficult to do double-duty in high school because the seasons have so much overlap.

More:UGA commit spent 19 years on an Australian dairy farm. Now, he is 'excited' to play in the SEC

“I can just remember one day the baseball team was going out to play a scrimmage and I couldn’t go because I was still playing basketball,” Will said. “That hurt me a lot. I was better at baseball and I loved it more. When I got put behind in baseball, I just knew baseball was my chance to play college sports and that’s what I really wanted to do.”

Will’s potential to play college baseball became clear. He helped North Oconee’s baseball team to a Class 4A state semifinal as a junior, playing second base and coming in as a closer on the mound.

Phillip admits it was a little tough watching his son stop playing basketball.

“In some ways, I hate that he didn’t finish out his high school career as a basketball player, but the baseball and basketball seasons just run together and it’s awfully difficult to do that,” Phillip said. “He made the decision and I certainly was in support of it. It was tough. One day you’ve got a son playing high school basketball and you’re able to go to some games and enjoy that, then the next day you don’t. It was tough, but it was the right decision.”

The COVID-19 pandemic cut Will’s senior year short.

More:Dell McGee, other minorities want to ‘crack the door open’ for head coaching jobs

Will had done enough by 2020 to earn an opportunity to play baseball at UGA, his dream school. He entered the season committed to the Bulldogs.

Will spent many weekends trying to find a way into Foley Field. He hit in the cages for years with Phillip. The community is all he’d known since he was in the second grade.

Will’s mother and father are natives of Alabama, Phillip from Montgomery and Ashley from Mobile.

Will’s home is Athens.

“I love the community of Athens and the community of Oconee County,” Will said. “I’ve been out at Foley Field since I was about 10 years old always just trying to find my way into those games.”

More:UGA baseball pivots with coach out after positive COVD-19 test. What plans do other teams have?

When Fox was fired as coach of the UGA basketball team in March of 2018, it meant Phillip had to find a new job and potentially move the Pearson family.

Will already had an offer from UGA, and the Bulldogs’ baseball coach Scott Stricklin let him know that he was still welcome at Foley Field when he graduated in 2020.

Will admits there were a few awkward moments in his recruitment, but he never really considered anywhere else after the reassuring conversation with Stricklin.

More:During tough times, UGA baseball junior Connor Tate able to lean on hometown Oconee County

“It was a weird time, and I had a couple schools look at me, but coach Stricklin told me there was still a spot for me if I wanted it,” Will said. “I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I didn’t really go out and look at too many other schools because I knew Georgia was where I wanted to be.”

Will’s parents say they were always comfortable with Will attending and playing at UGA. The Pearsons, who have since moved to Birmingham where Phillip serves as an assistant basketball coach at UAB, had come to know Stricklin through common employment and Stricklin's children attend North Oconee.

Phillip has always carried a respect for how the baseball program has operated.

“We were friendly, but I also had a great deal of respect for what he was trying to do from a baseball standpoint,” Phillip said. “Coach (Sean) Kenny came in a few years ago and we developed a relationship from a pitching standpoint. I was very comfortable with it. I tried to let Will make his own decision as the recruiting process kind of played out. He had some other opportunities that he was considering. My wife and I were happy that he decided to stay in Athens and go to UGA.”

Early impact

Will has already had his fair share of success in a UGA uniform. He’s thrown 15.2 innings so far in his first season and sports a 2.87 earned run average with a save and a win. He picked up his first win in his first career appearance in the Bulldogs’ win over Evansville on opening weekend. He closed out his first save the next day.

That early impact was fostered through the confidence Will has in his abilities.

That confidence came through the belief his high school coach Jay Lasley had in him closing out big games.

“Coach Lasley in high school put a lot of trust in me late in games,” Will said. “I had some confidence in myself. Once I saw him and the rest of the coaches have confidence in me, it made me believe in myself that I could go out there and do anything. With coach (Scott) Strickland and coach (Sean) Kinny as well as my teammates putting trust in me, I feel like I can go out there and do the same thing.”

According to his father, Will was the youngest player on his travel ball team by nearly two years. The age gap built mental toughness.

“Will was the youngest kid on the team and it happened by accident, but as we got going, I kind of liked it,” Phillip said. “He was always having to fight and scarp to hang in there with guys. A lot of the kids on the team were close to two years older than him. He was hanging in there enough that I thought it was good for him.”