BOGACZYK: On Court, Morales Goes from 6 to 2 with Success
The Word on the Herd - Feb. 24, 2016
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – If you want to size up Rachael Morales’ performance for Marshall’s tennis team, don’t go by her height.
At 5 feet 2, Morales is playing bigger in her junior season … in more ways than one.
In her first two seasons, Morales, of Columbus, Ohio, played mostly at No. 6 singles for the Herd. She posted 28 wins among her 32-12 record at that spot in two seasons. And playing in the last singles match, Morales and her opponent often decided which way a 4-3 score went.
That all changed when Coach John Mercer’s team was beset by injuries to Maddie Silver and Anna Pomyatinskaya, followed by the decision by another promising player to leave school after the fall semester.
When Morales returned to campus last August, Mercer had some news for the former Ohio state high school champion.
“I was shocked when I came back in the fall and John was like, ‘Hey, you’re playing (No.) 2 in this match.’ And I was like, ‘Uh, OK,’” Morales said. “It was definitely tough at first. It was tough to get used to the pace.
“Playing on a lower court, people don’t hit as hard. There are longer rallies (at No. 2), so I had to not completely change my game, but adapt to what was compatible to the opposing player so I could find a way to compete. I think my competitive nature really helped me move forward with that. My work ethic helped me compete at that level.”
Mercer felt like Morales could compete at a higher spot in the order, but she needed to believe she could.
“Rachael had a great year at 6 last year,” the Herd coach said. “She won a lot of matches for us, when it came down to a 3-3 and she was the last one playing and was able to really clinch the match for us. I think that really built her confidence, gave her a little bit of fire to want to play higher, considering all the success she had. She wanted to challenge herself, which says a lot for her. She wasn’t satisfied.
“She came back to school and just really had an average fall. She played higher because we had a bunch of injuries and she found out it’s tough. Matches are much more physical when you get higher. Players are just better; that’s why they’re playing higher.
“They’re smarter, craftier, a lot more thought involved. But Rachael stuck with it, worked really hard, did everything physically – the conditioning, weight training, running – so she continued to develop. And as you get older, you should, if you stick with the program. So, she’s going to keep getting better.
“And this spring, it’s kind of all settled in. He mind and her body have kind of caught up to the pace and speed of the game. And I think to a certain extent, it’s slowed down for her. So, even though she’s been playing higher, she’s kind of adjusted to what’s going on, and everything’s not happening as fast from shot-to-shot. If anything, I think it’s really hard, but Rachael is kind of maybe surprising herself that it’s as easy as it is now.”
With Marshall (4-5) visiting Penn State on Sunday, Morales is 6-1 in singles play (38-13 career). She started the season 5-0 at No. 2, then went 1-1 last weekend at No. 3 as Mercer is experimenting with different lineups as the Herd gets healthy.
Morales said the adjustment in her spot has been a mental and physical challenge.
“It’s both for me,” she said. “I’m small, 5-2. Girls who play 1, 2, 3 (singles) are big girls most of the time and they hit really hard. So, physically, I had to get stronger and faster, but mentally, it was trying to get into the mindset where, ‘OK, you’re playing up but you have to relax. Take it as an opportunity. See what you can do here. If you win, it’s an awesome win. If you lose, then it’s like, ‘Who cares?’ you had an opportunity.
“I did struggle (in the fall). Over Christmas break, I went home and told myself, ‘You know what? I’m going to really work my butt off. My team needs me and I’m going to have to step up to the plate. I trained really hard over the break, every single day, got really good hitting and then I came back and everything just kind of fell into place for me.”
Morales heard about not “measuring up” before, back when she was having success in juniors and at Bishop Hartley High School.
“I wasn’t actually recruited a whole lot,” Morales said. “I did a lot of it on my own, reaching out to coaches. I had a few offers, but not many – Toledo, Cleveland State … Illinois was looking at me for a little while but nothing ever came of it. A lot of the Big Ten schools told me I was too small to play for them, so I always get really excited against those schools, pumped up to play them.
“When Marshall came into the picture, I already was kind of set on going to Cleveland State or Toledo. Then I went on a visit here and just loved everything about it, how it was like a small school, everything close by. It was a real family here and you could tell that everybody cared about one another.
“And I knew John was a good coach because I knew his daughter, Cassie, from tournaments. I know his wife, Laurie. And I also knew I wanted to go to a school where I could improve. I didn’t know if I was going to make the lineup, but they offered me a scholarship and I saw everything that was being offered and figured it was too good an opportunity to pass up.”
Mercer said he and assistant Kellie Schmitt saw Morales’ potential rooted in one part of her game.
“Rachael wasn’t really that highly recruited, but we knew one thing from watching her at juniors – she had impeccable timing of the ball,” Mercer said. “She’s an excellent ball-hitter, so it was mostly a matter of developing her in a physical way. and then once she physically and mentally competed at that level, it made a difference.
“She’s a smart kid. I think she just had to get enough experience playing at that level to do it. Eventually, there’s a peak for everybody, but we still need to find out where hers is. We just keep letting Rachael play, let her keep working on it, and she keeps understanding more and more how you play the game – just not from a technical standpoint, but from a strategic standpoint. We’ll see what the peak is for her.”
Told of Mercer’s remark about her ball-hitting, Morales smiled and nodded.
“John always tells me I have really good timing,” she said. “In a match sometimes he’ll tell me, ‘Use your timing.’ And I think, ‘What does that mean?’ I guess the best way I can explain that is I have a really good feel for the ball. I can kind of redirect it well and can hit a variety of shots off the same ball, so it helps me to mix up my game when I need to.
“Definitely, I’m surprised how I’ve played (at No. 2). That’s another thing John has talked to me about – my self-confidence. I don’t always believe in myself but I’m learning to believe in myself more – have more confidence in my ability.
“If you had asked me as a freshman, ‘Do you see yourself playing 2 in a couple of years?’ And I’d have said, ‘No. I don’t even know if I’m going to make it into the lineup next year.’ I just always think, ‘Keep working hard; keep working hard. Do your best. That’s all you can ask of yourself.”
Morales, 21, is a nursing major after switching from biology following her freshman year. Her 3.84 GPA is typical on a team that regularly reaches a perfect 1,000 score on the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate scale.
“I’m really interested in pharmacology and I really think maybe becoming a nurse practitioner is a possibility, or maybe a nurse anesthetist,” Morales said. “I’m interested in all of the chemistry … but it’s still really early, still lot of clinicals to go through. I’ve got a while to figure it out.”
She’s already done that in her game on the court.
“For me, it’s all about doing the best I can do and controlling the thing I can control,” said Morales, who also is 32-16 in career doubles and teams this season with junior Derya Turhan, the Herd’s top player. “If I have a bad day and I lose, that’s it.
“I had a bad day, and I just work on what I need to work on and move on, try not to dwell on it. It can sting a little bit. I just listen to what the coaches have to say, try to do what they want me to do if it works, it works, and if it doesn’t it doesn’t. There’s another day.”
Mercer referenced a Herd legend from another sport to help explain Morales’ experiences.
“We always felt like Rachael could do it,” he said. “For some of these kids, it’s simply getting an opportunity to do it. Sometimes it works out that you get that opportunity, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s just like any other sport. Chad Pennington was third string, and two guys go down and there you go. The physical factor goes a long way in determining how you play the game, but you can go a long way if you really understand how you play the game, too.”