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Baseball

Turner Morse paces Warriors on mound & at plate in stellar season

Commitment to excellence

Rewind to May 25th. The setting: Annapolis, Maryland.
Sterling’s Turner and Trey Morse are in their hotel watching the livestream of the Golden Warrior baseball team’s regional semifinal game against Rochelle.

The clock strikes 7 p.m. Eastern, 6 p.m. in Rochelle. Turner’s classmate, Elias Edmondson, hits a solo home run in the sixth inning, but Sterling still trails the Hubs 7-6 heading into the seventh inning.

At this point, the two brothers have to go to a graduation party for their older brother Tanner, who just hours before graduated from the United States Naval Academy. It’s no big deal, as they plan on streaming the game on a smartphone. When they reach the party, the bars at the top of their phones dwindle to nothing. They’ve lost reception.

“We’ll see what happens,” Turner recalled thinking at the moment. “If we win, we win. If we lose, that’s it. After hearing that Elias hit the ball over the fence, we said, ‘Oh crap, we have to buy plane tickets.’ We flew back Friday night after Tanner’s graduation and were there Saturday.”

While the Warriors completed the 8-7 comeback, Sterling coach Nick Pepper was much more tense during the game compared to Turner’s laid-back mindset.

“I’d say having six errors was a part of it,” Pepper laughed. “But I had faith in the team all season. Obviously it would’ve been nice to have Turner and Trey. I was happy for Turner because of him being a senior so he could have a couple more games.”

But what if, with the game knotted at seven, Chris Brouilette’s game-winning run didn’t count because Edmondson passed Cooper Willman between first and second? What if Sterling had gone down 1-2-3 in the seventh? Would Turner feel regret about being away from his team while celebrating his brother? All those hypotheticals end in Turner and Trey Morse being more than 12 hours away supporting Tanner.

“My brother graduating from the Naval Academy is a huge accomplishment,” Turner said. “That was higher on the priority list.”

Everything worked out in the end. The Morse brothers all came together to celebrate in Annapolis on Thursday, and 2 days later, Turner was back on the mound at Rochelle, throwing to his brother behind the plate in Sterling’s 9-1 win over Stillman Valley in the regional championship. Turner tossed six innings, giving up just two hits and one run while striking out six and hitting a solo homer.

“When I heard that we won, I knew I was going to be on the mound,” Turner said. “I had barely thrown that week. It felt awesome for us to get back and win like that.”

“At the banquet we had this past Tuesday, I actually got a little emotional just because of what we’ve gone through,” Pepper said. “I’m definitely going to miss Turner for more than his playing ability. It was awesome to watch them have that success and reach all our goals.”

•••

Those goals were to reach or break the school record for wins in a season (22), win the NIB-12 West (a feat that hadn’t been accomplished since 1988), and win a regional (which hadn’t been done since 2011). All were lofty goals, but the program had risen from irrelevance since Morse came into the program as a freshman starting on varsity. Sterling won 13 games combined in 2014 and 2015, then jumped to 17 wins a year ago.

“I was looking back at it and said to myself, ‘Wow, we have all these guys returning. We had five or six sophomores and a couple freshmen up on varsity for a 17-win team.’ We knew it was going uphill,” Morse recalled.

“We’ve gone through some hard times together, and the last couple years, been through some good stuff,” Pepper said. “I can’t say enough about his leadership and his work ethic.”

The Warriors’ 22nd win against Stillman Valley in the regional final allowed them to check off all of their goals, with Turner at the forefront.

“It was great to see the work we put in pay off,” Morse said. “We didn’t want to be at that low point. We didn’t want to feel that way again.”

Ultimately, Sterling’s most successful year since 1978 came to an end at the bats of Burlington Central in a Sycamore Sectional semifinal. The Rockets clobbered four home runs, making it easier for Turner and the rest of the Warriors to cope with the loss.

“They were the better team that day,” Morse said. “They came out and swung it. I wouldn’t say it was better to lose that way, but we got beat.”

•••

Sterling would not have broken through to its goals if not for the connection they had 60 feet, 6 inches away on 10 occasions. A pitcher-catcher relationship is vital to success, and sometimes takes some time to develop. By Pepper’s second year at the helm in 2015, he didn’t have to worry about Turner and his catcher/younger brother being on the same page. All those mix-ups were ironed out in their elementary days.

“It’s been a blessing to have those two at the battery,” Pepper said. “If we knew we were playing a tough team, Turner was our go-to guy. They know each other’s strengths and weaknesses.”

Trey played up on Turner’s teams growing up during travel ball. The bond was formed on long summer days in tournaments across the Midwest, and in their backyard at home.

“He’s always been my catcher. He knows me in and out, and it’s nice to have a catcher with a chemistry that’s on point,” Turner said. “Sometimes he’d get on me. But it’s nice to have someone who pushed me.”

It was evident the younger Morse brothers had chemistry. When Turner would bounce a curveball or spike a fastball in the dirt, Trey would let him know in the form of firing the ball back to the mound. Mound visits were brief, and usually resulted in Turner escaping trouble and a high-five waiting in the dugout from Trey.

Turner throws a 2-seam fastball, a 4-seam fastball, a curveball that acts like a slider with late breaking action due to a tremendous amount of spin, and his new weapon for the 2017 season, a changeup. Turner didn’t develop a changeup he was comfortable and confident with using in a game until last summer.

“I finally figured out that I didn’t have to slow my arm action. I can grip it this way and it’ll have a downward angle,” Morse said. “Up until that point, my curveball was everything. The development of my changeup was huge.”

The stats show how dominant Turner was in keeping hitters off-balance. He led the Warriors in ERA (1.86) and WHIP (1.31) in 2017, compiling a 5-2 record and 52 strikeouts in 52 2/3 innings. He allowed just 14 earned runs, 50 hits, and issued 19 walks against a tough NIB-12 and nonconference schedule.

His pitching records rank among the best in school history. His 39 appearances are the most ever, and he is second in innings pitched (190 1/3) and strikeouts (190), and 10th in wins (10).

His performance at the plate has never lagged behind. Rarely throughout his 4 years of varsity has he been late on catching up to a fastball or fooled by an offspeed pitch. He never viewed himself as a 15-year-old freshman trying to make contact against an 18-year-old senior back in 2014, but instead remained confident he could adapt.

“The pitching style and velocity didn’t change much over 4 years,” Morse said. “It really benefitted seeing that for 4 years.”

Hitting in the No. 2 slot in the Warriors’ order this season, Turner led Sterling in batting average (.418, 38-for-91) on-base percentage (.565, a single-season school record), OPS (1.136), and quality at-bat percentage (73.6 percent). His 35 runs, 23 walks, 18 RBIs, 16 stolen bases, nine doubles and nine times hit by pitch were near the top of the team rankings.

The most impressive number of all, though, was just seven strikeouts in 125 plate appearances, which was second on the team for any Warrior with more than 100 plate appearances.

“Honestly, I don’t hold myself in that high of regard at the plate,” Morse said. “I’ve always been a contact hitter. That’s been my biggest strength. I wasn’t looking to do anything phenomenal at the plate, but about halfway through I realized I was doing really well. My confidence just built and built.”

However, his seven strikeouts in a season weren’t even good enough to be the leader in his own house: Trey struck out four times in 122 plate appearances.

He may not hold himself to such lofty expectations at the plate as he does on the mound, but Turner’s all-time stats in the batter’s box put him in elite company. He finishes his Sterling baseball career as the program leader in at-bats (357), games played (124), singles (78), walks (65) and hit by pitches (18), and ranks second in hits (109) and runs (92).

•••

The next step for Turner is to take on a challenge greater than facing a 90-mile-per-hour fastball as a 15-year-old, and more grueling than a full swim meet or two-a-day in football – he’ll continue the family tradition at the Naval Academy. His older brother was a big reason for him choosing Annapolis as his next home, as was his grandfather, Ed Morse, who served in the Air Force.

“I’ve always wanted to be an officer, a pilot in particular,” Morse said. “Going to Annapolis is a phenomenal opportunity to become a Marine or be in the Navy. I want to fly F-18s and bombers – the fun stuff.”

He’ll study chemistry at Navy, a not-so-fun degree he talked about with a wry smile knowing the degree of difficulty.

“I’ve heard it’s not a fun degree to take up,” Morse said with a laugh.

Turner will also try to walk-on to the Midshipmen baseball team. During his junior year, he went to a seminar on campus and talked with Navy head coach Paul Kostacopoulos about what the program was looking for in a pitcher. Turner came away from the meeting oozing with confidence.

“Wow, I’ve got this. I have the ability,” Morse recalled.

Turner kept in touch with Kostacopoulos throughout his senior season, and is eager to get on the field in Annapolis to show the Navy coaching staff what he can do.

“I believe [Kostacopoulos] has liked what he’s heard,” Morse said. “I’m just hoping I get that chance at tryouts in the fall.”

Baseball, the ultimate game of failure, has prepped Morse for the next chapter in his life. Pepper teaches on-field skills, but puts an emphasis on the mental approach to the game. Having overcome a nine-win season, followed by a five-win season, Turner’s ready to turn the ups and downs of the game into a career of service.

“We talk about being one-pitch warriors,” Pepper said. “It doesn’t matter what happened two pitches ago, or a game ago. It’s about staying in the present. If he can take that lesson with him, and I have confidence that he will, that’s going to help him excel.”

“Hard work can take you anywhere,” Morse said. “Persistence and believing and trusting in the system will help too, especially going through what I did with baseball.”

Turner Morse file

School: Sterling

Position: Pitcher, shortstop

FYI: Sterling baseball’s all-time leader in at-bats (357), games played (124), singles (78), walks (65) and hit by pitches (18)... ranks second in hits (109) and runs...led Golden Warriors in batting average (.418), on-base percentage (.565), OPS (1.136) and quality at-bat percentage (73.6 percent)

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