Coastal Carolina baseball: Lifelong friends playing key role in Chants' success
As Mike Morrison tells it now, he didn't even want to go to the prospect showcase in Columbia that would ultimately make all of this possible.
Despite a stellar pitching career at Gilbert High School in the western part of the state, he had received such minimal interest from college recruiters that he had all but resigned himself to the thought of leaving baseball behind entirely and simply going to school nearby at USC Aiken.
"Shoot, I maybe had a walk-on opportunity at Charleston Southern. That was about it," Morrison recalls. "I had honestly cashed it in."
So Morrison went to the Diamond Prospects showcase, and it's become one of those classic college baseball recruiting stories for which every coach has an example or several.
This particular one just happens to have played a rather pronounced role in the resurgence of Coastal Carolina baseball back up the national rankings with what has now become the most exciting season for the program since its 2010 run to the NCAA Super Regionals.
From going to no offer to playing in a program I never thought I'd have a chance to play at is unbelievable to me, and to do it with your best friend, you can't write it any better than that.
As the story goes, Chanticleers pitching coach Drew Thomas was really at the showcase to see Morrison's Gilbert High teammate Connor Owings, a talented hitter with a rich family baseball pedigree, but ... well, he tells the story best.
"Basically I was going to [watch] Connor and some other guys. So I went there to see him, he did well of course and then Mike gets on the mound and I didn't know who he was," Thomas says. "He pitched really well, threw two innings, he was 84-86 [miles per hour], but the breaking ball got me. It was really good that day, 75, downer, swing and miss pitch. And he won the Golden Arm award that day.
"Both teams were in one dugout and after he won that award every kid in that dugout came and gave him a hug. It was like, 'Hmm, there's something about this kid.' I dug into it a little bit more and you couldn't find anybody to say a bad word about him, either one of them honestly. And then they came to camp two weeks later and it was a done deal."
Flash forward a handful of years and try to imagine the No. 19-ranked Chants (31-13 entering Sunday) without Morrison and Owings.
Heading into their weekend series at Georgia Tech, the senior right-hander had thrown 33 consecutive innings without allowing an earned run, had a miniscule 0.48 earned-run average and was ranked fifth this week on D1Baseball.com's latest relief pitcher power rankings.
And he would probably have a case for team MVP honors if not for his lifelong friend and teammate since he was five years old, because in the meanwhile Owings has been simply otherworldly at the plate this spring.
The senior right fielder entered the weekend batting .399 overall with eight home runs in his previous 14 games and should be the odds-on favorite for Big South Player of the Year honors.
"From going to no offer to playing in a program I never thought I'd have a chance to play at is unbelievable to me, and to do it with your best friend, you can't write it any better than that," Morrison says, reflecting back. "We talk about it all the time."
Thomas hears about it too.
Morrison and Owings tease him that he got lucky to land them together relatively late in the recruiting process, and he probably wouldn't disagree.
"From the first time you ever met those two together you could see the bond they had," Thomas says. "They won the state championship as seniors and they're winners, and that's what they've brought here. They've instilled that in all the rest of these guys and it shows today."
Morrison's Mojo Risin'
As difficult as it has been to get a hit off Morrison this season, it may be even harder to get him to talk about his success.
Standing on the field after Coastal Carolina's win over High Point last Monday, after all of his teammates have already filtered back into the locker room, Morrison is asked what this season has meant to him, to see his full potential come together with one dominant performance after another.
He instead talks about Chants coach Gary Gilmore and how much the players want to make this season special for him.
"Honestly since it's our last ride, we have so many older guys and we've been playing for Gilley for so long, there's nothing more we want to do than give us an opportunity to make it to Omaha," he says. "... He works so dang hard, and just to try to get him to Omaha is the ultimate goal."
OK, fair enough, but has Morrison exceeded even his own expectations in this, his final collegiate season?
This time he talks about fellow relievers Andrew Beckwith and promising rookie Austin Kitchen and about veteran starter Alex Cunningham and pretty much anyone else he can pull into the conversation, including the team's freshman bullpen catcher.
"The success of my teammates is mostly what I love about it," Morrison says.
He doesn't have to say much about his own performance, though, as the numbers say plenty.
He's 5-0 with five saves, 52 strikeouts and 13 walks over 37 2/3 innings. Opponents are hitting just .142 against him and his ERA entering the weekend was better than any pitcher on the NCAA Division I leaders list, although he doesn't have enough innings pitched to actually qualify for his own ranking.
"It's been unbelievable," Thomas says. "The kid has truly matured beyond what I could imagine. He's just an absolute machine out there, never fazed by anything, never lets the results affect what he does. It's awesome."
The truth is, though, that even Morrison couldn't have predicted a senior season like this, not after the way he finished his junior campaign.
A herniated disk in his back troubled him for most of last season, and coping with that injury eventually put extra strain on his shoulder and then his elbow as the pain got worse and worse until he almost reached a breaking point during the NCAA Regionals in College Station, Texas.
"That regional last year, shoot, I was almost in tears in the bullpen trying to get loose," Morrison recalls. "[Catcher] David Parrett always talks about that and says, 'If that ever happens again, I'll never let you throw.' We just ran out of arms last year so I had no choice. I would do anything for Gilley so I would never tap out due to injury.
"Gilley obviously looks after me and I lied to his face a couple times [about my health], but that's part of the game."
Morrison finished last season with a 2-3 record and 3.97 ERA and would take the fall off to rest and heal. He credits team trainer Barry Lippman and strength and conditioning coach Nick White for working with him extensively since the end of last season to get his body right.
But by the time preseason practice started, he still didn't feel totally confident.
In his second outing of the season against Marshall back on Feb. 26, he gave up five hits, two walks and two runs in 3 2/3 innings. His velocity was down to 84-86 miles-per-hour rather than the 90-91 he routinely hits.
Since then, though, he has allowed only one lone unearned run over those 33 dominant innings.
"I was walking down here with Bobby [Holmes] that Ohio State game, I think we won it in extra innings, I told Bobby, 'I've got to figure it out. I've got to start striking people out, I've got to start doing something, I've got to get back to the way I was,'" Morrison recalls. "And Bobby was like, 'You don't got it anymore.'
"He gave me a little jab so I had to go out there and step it up a little bit. ... I just started rearing back and throwing it again."
Mixing his slider and his deceiving curveball with good fastball command, he's made the outcome of his appearances seem almost automatic.
"He's our guy," Chants designated hitter G.K. Young says. "I'll take him any day of the week, no matter who we're facing, where we're at. That's my boy. If I could choose anybody, I want him on my mound. He's a dog."
Gilmore has said at times this season that nobody deserves the success more than Morrison for the work he's put in, the work he still puts in prior to every game to keep his back loose and ready.
"It's incredible to watch him evolve," Gilmore says.
And especially so for Markatine, Morrison's older brother by 12 years who pushed him to pursue his opportunities and is enjoying this season as much as anyone. As he has throughout Morrison's collegiate career, Markatine drives down from his home in Charlotte, where is an assistant football coach at Myers Park High School, for every Chants' home series and even some up-and-back trips for midweek games.
"His thought process is he's glad he's having success to help his team," Markatine says. "It's not a 'me' thing because he's so grateful to Coach Gilmore and Coach Thomas and his teammates. That's really what drives him. To be honest, I'm the one that gets more into [his success] than he does. He downplays it and I have to remind him, 'You looked good.' And he's like, 'We got a win.'"
Owings on a tear
While there was no way to predict Morrison would pitch to the incredible level he has this season after bringing a 4.02 career ERA into the spring, there was at least some question as to whether Owings would even be back as a senior.
Gilmore said he talked with the slugger after his junior season about the benefits of returning for one more year versus trying to sign as an undrafted free agent.
"If I had an opportunity to go and I felt like it was right I was going to take it, but I think things have turned out very good for me," Owings says. "It was a good opportunity to come back and with Coach White, I think I've gotten so much stronger. My body is a lot more ready for a pro season now than it was last year, and the things that Coach [Kevin] Schnall and Coach Gilmore have worked with me on, not just the physical side of my swing but mentally have helped me tremendously this year."
There's no denying that.
After batting .270 last season, Owings has been right around .400 of late and recently had an 18-game hit streak. He entered the weekend leading the Chants not only in batting, but also with 11 homers, a .491 on-base percentage and a .734 slugging percentage
He has detailed in the past the obstacles he's overcome after realizing prior to his freshman year that he had only one functioning kidney and knowing he'll eventually need a transplant.
But Gilmore has also noted the senior slugger has looked in the best shape of his collegiate career this season.
Seeing the numbers he is putting up, Owings said his older brother Chris, who plays for the Arizona Diamondbacks, "keeps texting me asking me what I'm eating so he can get on my diet plan."
The two worked out together back home over the Christmas break, and Owings entered his senior season looking to be a catalyst for a team with surging expectations.
"I've just kind of poured everything into this last year," he says. "I just want to help us win because ultimately that's all that matters."
It took Owings 16 games into this season before he hit his first home run and at the time he said he was eager to catch up to his teammates. With several other Chants getting off to such hot starts in the power department, it didn't figure he would be the pace setter at any point, but once he heated up he has simply refused to cool off.
During that 18-game hitting streak he batted .500 (33-of-66), and entering the weekend he had a ridiculous .919 slugging percentage and .563 on-base percentage over the last 21 games.
"It's the development in him, the maturity to realize that, 'I can't pick and choose taking at-bats off.' He grinds out every at-bat, he hasn't given hardly any away all year long and that's the difference between him being a guy hitting close to .400 and a guy who hits .280," Gilmore says.
As for the future, Owings said he isn't feeling any pressure about his professional prospects as a senior. Not this year.
"I think I honestly felt a lot more pressure last year because you feel you have to be that guy that stands out," he says. "And this year it's just one of those things that I take it as a grateful opportunity daily to get to play more baseball. And if it's in the plan for me to play baseball in the future it will happen, and if not I'm going to try to just have as much success now as I can."
The final chapter
Morrison and Owings are standing in the Chants' hitting facility earlier this week sharing memories when they're asked if they've ever been competitive with one another.
It comes out that they both were vying for the starting quarterback job at Gilbert at one point before Owings won out and Morrison ended up as a wide receiver/safety.
"Oh God, I don't even want to talk about that. Connor was a much better thrower than me," Morrison says.
Says Owings: "Mike was a little bit tougher than me so they let him play defense and they let me hand the ball off. ... Our senior year I think I threw like 13 touchdowns and nine of them were to Mike."
"It was just friendly competition," Morrison adds. "Regardless of who was out there the other guy was the biggest cheerleader."
There are a lot of stories they recall fondly, so much so that their Chanticleer teammates have probably heard them all.
"I feel like our teammates have had enough of it by now," Morrison says. "We talk more about things we've done when we were younger than any other thing -- Gilbert trivia of the day or things like that. They all mess with us a little bit about it. But when you're together for so long, every little thing that's gone on in his life, and everything that's gone on in my life is part of each other's lives. ... We've learned a lot from each other."
The discussion shifts back to how they got to Coastal Carolina in the first place and how this all began.
A couple of weeks after that Diamond Prospects event in Columbia late in the summer before their senior year of high school, Morrison and Owings were invited to Conway for a camp held by the Chants.
It was during football season and they came over after a game to give Gilmore and Thomas one more look at the boys from Gilbert.
"I remember that camp Connor went 3-for-4 that day actually ...," Morrison says.
"Only person that got me out was Mike," Owings interjects.
"I think I threw him a change-up," Morrison recalls. "I haven't thrown a change-up in four years. I think I just took a little off to try to get him out."
After the camp they went up to Gilmore's office together and were offered the opportunity to join the program. It was late in the recruiting process and there wasn't much scholarship money left to disperse, but that didn't matter.
"We're leaving and we didn't commit in Gilley's office, Connor's dad was walking in front of me, my brother's with me and me and Connor elbow each other and say, 'What are we doing? Why didn't we sign right then and there? What were we thinking?'" Morrison says.
It didn't take long before they phoned in their commitments.
"Me and my dad actually stopped at the Arby's on the way out in Conway. I told him, 'I want to do it,'" Owings says. "So I called Coach Gilmore and told him I wanted to come play baseball for him here, and I called Mike right after that and Mike's like, 'You know what's funny, I already called him.'"
What the future holds from here is unknown. After going undrafted as juniors, both players have no doubt boosted their pro stock this spring.
All the while making that story of how this all started even more interesting to reflect on these days.
"We scrapped our way to where we are today. ... It's been very fun to see what we can do," Morrison says. "Looking back on that moment [we committed to the program] was probably one of the best days of my life."
And as it's proved out, a pretty good day for the Chants as well.
The story isn't over yet, though.
Coastal Carolina is in the conversation to potentially host an NCAA Regional if it keeps playing like it has over the last month and a half.
To get the Chants back into an NCAA Super Regional and maybe even to the program's first College World Series appearance remains the ultimate goal, and to that end, the Gilbert boys will try to keep doing their part.
"Being instate guys, I still remember 2010 sitting at home watching that Super Regional between Coastal and South Carolina and ever since then it's kind of been ingrained in your head where this program is and what it means," Owings says. "So having the opportunity to reach that level and maybe even further is awesome, and I hope we get the opportunity to do that."
This article was written by Ryan Young from The Sun News and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.