BOGACZYK: Zerkle Bouncing Back Toward Elite Opportunity
Tuesday, May 17, 2016
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – Morgan Zerkle has a new goal, and this one is very different for her.
It’s not about batting average or hits or stolen bases this time for the record-setting Marshall softball star. Instead, she’s put herself on the clock.
With her report date to the USA Softball Women’s Elite Team only 27 days away, the Herd centerfielder continues to rehab her way back from serious injury that cost her 22 games over a month of the 2016 Herd season.
“I’m definitely not 100 percent,” said Zerkle, a rising senior in Coach Shonda Stanton’s program. “I’m hoping to get a little bit closer to that before I go, because right now I have another month of treatment and rehab. And just resting it and not playing on it and doing proper rehab is going to help a lot.”
Zerkle, a former Cabell Midland High School standout from Milton, lost nearly 40 percent of her junior season in Stanton’s 500th victory as the Herd coach, on March 13.
In the bottom of the first inning at Dot Hicks Field against UTEP, Zerkle reached on a bunt single, stole second, went to third on a groundout and then beat the throw home on a fielder’s choice … sliding into Miners’ catcher Linda Garcia.
“It was a Grade 3 high (right) ankle sprain,” Zerkle said. “I tore some ligaments and had a bone bruise on my talus bone … I wasn’t really thinking about Team USA right then, but during the game it was like, ‘Oh my goodness, I’m going to be out for the season or at least a good part of it.’
“In a season, you have goals, so many hits, so many records you’re trying to break and I just knew … As soon as it happened, I was like, ‘I am not OK.’ It’s not just a little twisting of an ankle. I was definitely upset more because I was thinking I wouldn’t be able to play, that more than about my ankle really hurt.”
Now, Zerkle does 90 minutes of rehab daily at the Marshall University Sports Medicine Institute. She is scheduled to report to the USA Elite Team on June 12 in Oklahoma City. Zerkle and 15 Elite teammates and the USA Softball National Team will begin workouts for the 13-team World Cup of Softball XI, scheduled July 5-10.
She is one of only 34 players in the 2016 USA Softball national program.
“They haven’t said anything to me about the injury and they haven’t seemed concerned because you hear ‘ankle sprain,’ and everyone figures, ‘Oh, no big deal, she’ll be back,’” Zerkle said of the Elite Team, for which she was selected after a January tryout invitation for the USA Softball National Team. “Hopefully that’s true, and I should be fine within a month.”
After missing 22 games over one month for the Herd, Zerkle returned to play Marshall’s final 14 games. And although she wasn’t as fleet afoot as she was prior to the injury, the respect she has earned was displayed by an All-Conference USA first team selection from league coaches for a second straight year.
Zerkle batted .482 with 28 steals in 33 attempts and posted a .513 on-base percentage. The clinical exercise psychology major also made the C-USA All-Academic Team for a second consecutive season.
“After the MRI, they didn’t really put a time constraint on it because they didn’t want to limit me,” Zerkle said. “A reasonable time for the average person to come back would be like 12 weeks, but I came back in five – at least partially. I guess I was on crutches for about two weeks.
“I’d say everyone was pretty surprised, including myself, that I came back when I did. At first it started feeling a lot better when I was hitting, and then when I went to slapping, it kind of took me back a step and it really started hurting again the last couple of weeks.
“That was definitely tough mentally to know I was improving, and then to take a step back when it came to running faster and slapping. And at first when I came back, I didn’t steal or slap. Sometimes they’d put pinch-runners in for me if they knew there’d be a play at the plate because I really didn’t want to slide into a catcher again, or really even slide into a bag.
“I wouldn’t say I was worried, but the coaches were really careful and hesitant with me on the bases. Then, the last couple of weeks, even though it was hurting really bad, I could just focus on the time I had to run from first to second, so I had a few stolen bases toward the end. It wasn’t so much that I was scared; it was just about making myself run fast for those few seconds.”
Zerkle, who batted a school-record .506 as a 2015 sophomore, saw senior teammate and outfield sidekick Kaelynn Green run past her MU single-season steals record. Greene finished 2016 with 51 thefts, three more than Zerkle posted in 2014 when she burst into NCAA Division I softball consciousness with 48.
“It was very tough for me to stay positive,” said Zerkle, who will turn 21 in August. “When you’re someone who doesn’t ever sit on the bench and this is your first time watching your teammates play, it gets really difficult to focus and help out where you can by cheering and encouraging your teammates.
“And when you see your teammate, Kaelynn Greene, who’s breaking your records, you’re like, ‘Aw …’ You’re happy for her, but you wish you were out there with her doing those things. It’s definitely different for us as a team when only one of us is out there rather than both. Then when you’re losing, it’s even harder. ‘What if I could have made a difference here?’ You just try to stay positive and wait for your time to come again, I guess.”
The Herd (30-26) went 10-12 with Zerkle on the sidelines. After she returned, Zerkle said her work was limited, and she wore an ankle brace on the field and often sported a boot on her right ankle when off the diamond.
She also tried to put the Team USA summer into the back of her mind, hoping the injury hadn’t dashed her opportunity to represent her school and team in international competition.
“I definitely tried to stay positive the entire time,” she said. “It was, ‘Oh, I’ll be fine by then.’ During the season when I’d get pretty frustrated, I’d say I’ve got to think toward the summer and the future and it was like, ‘Yeah, I might be out now but I still have a really good opportunity coming up and hopefully I’ll be fine for that.’”
Zerkle also said she considered shutting down her Herd season after her return because she was having pain – mentally as well as physically.
“At practice, it was hard on me because (assistant) Coach (Kendall) Fearn would say, ‘OK, only 10 reps here,’ or ‘You’re not going to practice today,’” Zerkle said. “And that would be hard on me, and on my fellow outfielders. They’re out there practicing in the heat and I’m not, but then I’m going to play tomorrow.
“And that’s tough for me to deal with. That’s not me. You want to do it, but at the same time, you want to know your body and say, ‘Hey, I probably shouldn’t be doing this when they need me to play tomorrow. But if I practice today then I’ll be sore tomorrow.’”
After Zerkle joins the Elite Team for the World Cup in Oklahoma City, the squad is scheduled for more exhibitions and then moves to Marietta, Ga., for another training camp and additional competition to be announced soon.
And while she is hopeful of being able to perform at her best, Zerkle is certain of one thing as she works toward her USA Softball debut. She’s happy to put her junior year behind her.
“My junior year of high school, I tore the meniscus in my left knee 17 games into the (2012) season and I was out the entire season after that,” Zerkle said. “And that year we were supposed to win the state championship and we didn’t … and that’s the frustrating thing.
“And then this was my junior year of college and this happens. So, I’ve kind of said to myself, ‘Well, my junior year just does not like me.’”
Still, as she goes through the rehab paces daily, Zerkle knows she is an Elite player.
“Hopefully,” Zerkle said, “when this month is up, at least I’ll be close to 100 percent. I want to get back to that.”