As he sat at the varsity baseball diamond at Gartner Park on Wednesday afternoon, Sterling graduate Tanner Morse was exactly where his baseball coach had told him he might be 3 months earlier.
At the start of the season, Golden Warriors coach Robbie Minor – SVM's 2003 player of the year – told his standout shortstop/pitcher that he, too, could earn the award if Morse had the season he knew Morse was capable of.
"There was no pressure or anything," Morse recalled. "He just told me that I can put up the numbers to potentially be player of the year, and it got the idea in my head and pushed me throughout the year."
Despite a slow start, and thanks to the support of his coaches and teammates, Morse did indeed fulfill Minor's prediction. After leading his team in 13 offensive and six pitching categories, Tanner Morse is the 2013 SVM player of the year.
It wasn't the smoothest road. Through the first 15 games, Morse was toiling through an extended slump that threatened to derail his senior season before it even began.
But after a string of nearly 20 at-bats without a hit, when Morse admittedly thought, "Maybe this isn't going to happen," Minor pulled Morse aside and offered some simple words of encouragement.
"He just told me to relax and stop pressing," Morse said. "My advantage is that I'm always the mental thinker out on the field – but sometimes, I think too much, and it gets me in trouble.
"My coaches and teammates really picked me up, we had other guys stepping up and taking the offensive pressure off me, and I worked myself out of it."
Minor realized that Morse had the knowledge and tools as a 4-year varsity player to get out of the funk.
Once Morse started letting the game come to him instead of trying to force things, the turnaround was rapid and thorough. Morse went from a .270 batting average to a team-high .449 by the end of the year, and also led the way in on-base percentage (.556), slugging percentage (.654), runs scored (46), hits (48), doubles (13) and stolen bases (31).
Minor wasn't the only one who had complete faith in Morse. While he stayed patient with his best player, Morse's teammates were just as supportive.
"We knew he was going to come around," outfielder/pitcher Logan Rippy said. "He's always been the most reliable hitter I've played with, and we knew we could count on him. You can't ask for a better leader, and he gave us exactly what you need and want out of a captain. He stayed positive, stayed persistent, and broke out and had a great year."
"A lot of us look up to him and want to be like him," catcher David Gottemoller added, "because he sets such a great tone on and off the field. He always holds himself to a higher standard than everyone else, takes everything to heart. Even if no one's checking on him, you know he's putting in the time and hard work to help the team."
Morse credits the support system amongst his peers as being instrumental in his turnaround. With fellow 3-year varsity players Gottemoller, Rippy, Zach Rehmert and Kaleb Francque helping to pick up the slack, Morse rallied and found his rhythm.
That group formed a strong core of leaders who helped the Warriors (14-19) through thick and thin. Winning streaks of four and five games were intermingled with some tough losses, though Morse said those down moments helped provide him with memories that will last forever.
"When you go through a rough patch, or come off a tough loss, everybody's down together," Morse explained. "When that happens, it helps you build back up together, provides that kind of family aspect of baseball. We all really learned to trust each other over the past few years, and that's what sticks with you when it's all over."
Baseball and family have always been synonymous for Morse. Growing up, he remembers constantly asking his dad, Dustin, to play catch in the backyard, and his mom, Stacey, would frequently tell the story that Tanner's first word was "ball."
With two younger brothers, Turner and Trey, also in love with the game, it's no surprise that baseball was the way the Morse family bonded.
"It's almost like we're a baseball family," Tanner said, "and that's really how the game grew on me."
Travel ball also provided a family-type atmosphere. Morse played between 60 and 70 games every summer for the Quad Cities Hitmen, and a lot of those weekends saw him staying at teammates' houses so his folks wouldn't have to drive back and forth as often.
Morse, who still stays in touch with many of his former Quad Cities teammates, says that's when he really learned the game. The team mentality was instilled at an early age, as was the thirst for more and more knowledge.
The mental aspect of the game, the right attitude and the desire to be around baseball 24/7/365 is one of the things that stands out most with Morse. It also prompted his coach of the past two seasons to pay him the ultimate compliment.
"He's very comparable, with very similar characteristics to myself," said Minor, a Rock Falls standout who played for 4 years at Evansville before spending a few seasons in the minor leagues. "He's very intelligent on and off the field, and he's at his best when he stays within himself. He loves to jump-start his team by doing the little things, and he set the mold as far as what we wanted from these guys."
Morse started his varsity career as a freshman, coming up for the first time in a Dixon-Sterling-Rock Falls triangular. He remembers getting a hit off Jake Junis in his first at-bat, then Junis striking him out the next time.
His coach the first two seasons was Darwin Nettleton, a knowledgeable baseball guy with a lower-key approach and respect for his players and how hard they worked. Before Morse's junior year, Minor took over the program and brought with him a more intense brand of baseball.
Morse believes that ratcheting up of intensity was perfect for his career. After not feeling too much pressure as a freshman and sophomore, he was ready to take the reins as a leader in a more fervent atmosphere as an upperclassman.
He believes that experience will serve him well the next 4 years at the Naval Academy, where Morse is strongly considering walking on the baseball team. He's hoping to major in aerospace engineering, with an eye toward becoming a pilot.
He credits both coaches with helping him realize his love for structure and discipline. And he'll never forget that baseball is where it all began.
"Baseball plays right into that," Morse said eagerly. "I love practices that are laid out, planned; you know, do this, do that. It's the little things – technique, form, conditioning – that I love, especially when things are broken down, and that's what a lot of baseball is.
"If it's just kind of 'do your own thing,' that's when I get lost. Give me stations to work on all the various little pieces of the game; I love that type of thing."
Sitting at the diamond where his high-school baseball career unfolded, Morse once again focuses on the conversation he felt set the tone for his final season. While his personal highlight reel includes that hit off Junis and his lone varsity home run, on the first pitch of the first game against Dixon this past spring, it was Minor's frank talk back in March that Morse feels set him on the path which ultimately led to his senior-season success.
"It's a little weird sitting here doing this interview, but not quite as surreal as it may have seemed before Robbie put the idea in my mind," Morse said. "I knew what I was capable of, it's just whether I did it or not. His belief in me was a big help all season."
While Minor is proud to have influenced Morse both on and off the field, he says he deserves little credit for what transpired. Instead, he doles out the praise for a kid he wishes he could coach every year.
"Tanner was always one of the hardest working kids in our program, and he deserves everything he got," Minor said. "His numbers, his attitude, the respect of his teammates and coaches and opponents … those things speak for themselves. Every coach would love to have a Tanner Morse on their team."
Family: Parents Dustin & Stacey, brothers Turner (freshman-to-be) & Trey (8th grader-to-be)
High school: Sterling (class of 2013)
Sports: Baseball, football, swimming & diving
2013 baseball stats: .449 BA*, .556 OBP*, .654 SLG*, 1.211 OPS*, 46 R*, 20 RBI**, 48 H*, 13 2B*, 3 3B**, 1 HR*, 31 SB*, 6 SO*, 23 BB*, 3 HBP*, 70 total bases*; 6*-4, 2.42 ERA*, 59 2/3 IP*, 60 SO*, 18 BB, 50 H, 28 R, 16 ER, 2 HR, 9 starts*, 3 complete games*, 253 BF*, 9 errors (* – led team; ** – 2nd on team)
College: Naval Academy
Future major: Aerospace engineering
SVM player of the year
2013 – Tanner Morse, Sterling sr. P/SS
2012 – Brett Chappell, RF sr. P/SS
2011 – Eann Cox, E-P sr. P/3B & Jake Junis, RF sr. P/SS
2010 – Kyle Dermody, Morrison sr. P/OF
2009 – Kyle Dermody, Morrison jr. P/OF
2008 – Jarred Hippen, RF sr. P/1B
2007 – Seth Blair, RF sr. P/SS
2006 – Seth Blair, RF jr. P/SS
2005 – Seth Blair, RF so. P/SS
2004 – Ben Sondgeroth, RF sr. C
2003 – Robbie Minor, RF sr. P/SS
2002 – Ben Abbott, Fulton sr.