April 19, 2012
By Shawn Sell
At first glance, Zach Morris has the make-up to be a star. He stands 6'6", weighs 225 pounds and is what is widely considered a hot commodity in baseball, a left-handed pitcher with good velocity. But Morris is also a freshman. Unlike most newbies to the college game, however he isn't performing like one for the Bearcats this spring.
As a prep player at highly-regarded DeMatha High School in Maryland, Morris was a bona fide star. In his final two high school seasons, he posted a 10-1 record, held an ERA just under two and had a dominating 122 strikeouts in 77 innings of work. Those gaudy numbers easily drew the attention of many college coaches along the east coast, along with the Cincinnati head coaching staff. But before Morris was ready to make up his mind on college, he realized he was going to have to get solely focused on baseball.
"Baseball has always been my favorite sport," he says. "(But) I played soccer, football and basketball throughout high school. When I transferred to DeMatha for my junior year, I realized that baseball was my best shot for getting into college and I was starting to get looks from Division I coaches. The summer before my senior year when all the colleges started calling me, that's when I realized I had to drop all the other sports and really focus on baseball. My Dad has always been there pushing me and wanted me to play college baseball. He knew with me being a 6-6 lefty that I could go places as long as I worked hard and he was right."
Thanks to a key relationship between the UC staff and Morris' summer coach, the Bearcats were able to get in the midst of his recruiting, particularly pitching coach J.D. Heilmann.
"When I first started talking to J.D., I thought he was a really good guy and a good recruiter," Morris says. "When I came out here for my official (visit), I just got that feeling when you fall in love with a campus that everyone talks about. I liked the facilities and what the program was doing and I really liked the coaches. I just thought it would be best for me here."
It also didn't hurt that UC boasts some of the top college baseball facilities in the Midwest and happens to play in a highly competitive conference that includes members within driving distance of Morris' Edgewater, Md. home.
"The profile of the conference certainly helps," says UC head coach Brian Cleary. "I think when guy like Zach looks at the level that he would like to play; the profile of the league is certainly a factor. He looks at Cincinnati and sees the facilities, the campus, the coaching staff, the academics and the things that are going on here. Good players want to play at the highest level they can and if you look at the quality of play in the league, especially over the last couple years, great players want to test their skills against great competition. I think the quality of play the BIG EAST has achieved, the national exposure and the number of great players that the league is kicking out into pro baseball, that is very attractive to elite players."
And so, when it came time for Morris to make his choice, Cincinnati was the winner, beating out fellow BIG EAST member West Virginia, along with Virginia, Elon and Liberty among others. After arriving on UC's campus for his freshman campaign, Morris had no idea what the season would bring, but didn't think it would play out quite as it has. After making his first two collegiate appearances out of the bullpen, Morris moved into the weekend starting rotation the first week of March and hasn't looked back. Heading into his eighth start of the year this weekend against St. John's, Morris holds a 2-2 record and a 3.02 ERA (ninth in BIG EAST), including a stretch of over 18 innings without allowing an earned run.
"Coming in here, I was expecting to work hard and see where I ended up," he says. "I wasn't expecting to be a weekend starter to be honest. I guess through hard work in the fall, I was able to prove that I am a weekend starter. I am pretty happy with the way my year has gone so far."
"Getting a chance to start in the BIG EAST as a freshman is going to serve Zach well," Cleary adds. "We hadn't planned on that at the beginning of the season, but he got that opportunity and has done a really good job with it. I think that has been a real plus for him and for us going forward."
While Morris is certainly a physical presence when he takes the mound, it may be hard to believe that he is also described by his head coach as quiet and soft-spoken. However, when the big lefty takes the mound, a switch seems to go off according to Cleary.
"Zach kind of has a Jekyll and Hyde kind of quality to him," he says. "You meet him and wonder what his act is going to be when he climbs the mound. But when he toes the rubber, he has a little personality change, a transformation that shows some fire. He is a competitor; he wants the ball and has great body language.
"He also has some physical gifts that are good," Cleary continues. "He has a really good changeup and he has been able to locate his fastball. I think the one thing he hasn't done yet is master a curveball. He has shown an okay curveball, but as it gets better, he will become even more dangerous. He has had a good freshman year to this point, but I think he is going to become an even more polished pitcher as he continues to work with J.D."
While Morris has more tutelage with Heilmann to look forward to, looking back he points to two particular family members as key to helping him get to this point. Zach's father Kenny has been a long supporter and influence on his son's career, while younger brother Justin has also held a special relationship with his older brother.
"My Dad was always with me when I wanted to play catch or work on something and would take me to the field or the back yard," he says. "Justin has always been there for me and he actually caught for me my senior year, his freshman year, on varsity. I could always count on him to be around. It was great pitching to him."
On paper, Zach Morris seems to have it all. Size, strength, good velocity and two pitches he can consistently throw for strikes. And even though the roster shows him as only a freshman, it would be hard to tell at first glance this spring.