Late coach had a way of making kids believe
“He just had an uncanny way of getting the best out of every kid.” Debbie McQuaid
He believed in kids. It didn’t matter what he was coaching — swimming, soccer, lacrosse — he believed in his players. He believed in getting out of the way once the game or meet began, not wanting to be a distraction that might interrupt flow.
Win, lose or draw, he believed in sending players home on a positive note.
Perhaps more than anything, he believed in not allowing his players to cheat themselves. On days they were not at their best — or perhaps their worst — he believed they were better, and didn’t hesitate to tell them so.
There was even the rare occasion when Mike Morse believed in a little deception, thinking an innocent ploy might give his team an added edge.
“When I got to high school, I don’t know if he did this prior to, he had three poster boards, all different colors,” said Julie Morse, a four-year standout on the Saints Peter and Paul High girls’ lacrosse teams her father coached. “Before the (annual Talbot Lacrosse Association) Bull Roast game (against Easton) he told us, ‘Now girls, we have three new plays. We’re going to call them blue, yellow and red’ — those were the colors of the poster boards. And he said, ‘Now the plays are absolute nothing. I’m just going to hold them up and you guys do whatever you want. But we’re going to freak Easton out, thinking we have a plan.’
“That was funny,” said Julie Morse, who never lost a Bull Roast game as a player. “I don’t know if Easton ever noticed or not, but it made him feel like he was doing something.”
Mike Morse, who died on July 12, 2017, at age 60 after fighting cancer, did a
lot of the things coaches do during his near 40 years of coaching from sidelines and pool decks. He won some, lost some and tied some. He had seasons that ended with championships, and others that ended short of expectations.
He winced and clenched his fists over promising build-ups from the midfield that fizzled, maybe grabbed his head in agony over shots that missed by slight margins, or possibly contorted his body a time or two while reacting to an official’s eyesight — or oversight. He worked his players hard in practice, shaping and pushing them to levels they could not yet see because of their youth.
He seemingly always wore a windbreaker — white or blue — and a ballcap pulled down hard on his forehead. And then there was that little wagon he always showed up with, containing a medical kit, perhaps some lacrosse stick heads, a few tools for quick fixes, and at least on one occasion a bit of trickery.
But perhaps more than anything, Morse — whose coaching career ranged from youth travel leagues to the community college level, and included an impressive stretch at Saints Peter and Paul, where he coached boys’ soccer, girls’ lacrosse, and was also athletic director — had a radar-like sense for recognizing when a player wasn’t at his or her best, then doing something about it in a quiet, one-on-one fashion.
“He just believed in that,” said Debbie McQuaid in mid-September, a time of year when she and her older brother annually traded playful jabs with each other over field hockey and lacrosse. “He just had an uncanny way of getting the best out of every kid. You do different things with different kids to get them to that, and he just had that knack, knowing this one needed this much, this one needed a different direction.”
Morse’s eye didn’t differ between shining star or the end-of-the-bench reserve. If he sensed a player wasn’t performing at their expected level, he pulled them aside for an on-the-spot conference.
“He did not let you become a prima donna,” said Tim Corrigan, who swam for the Miles River Yacht Club when Morse was the head swim coach in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. “If he had a player who he knew was better, he was willing to do the right thing by pulling the player out to say, ‘My loyalty to you isn’t to let you run around and do anything. I don’t care if you can score 15 goals in this game, you’re going to be a better you even if it means you’re going to get 15 assists or nothing.’ Those things translate in life.”
Player-coach conferences the Morse way were without theatrics. There was no arm flapping, straining of vocal chords, or changing facial colors from a healthy tan to fire-engine red in under three seconds. It was a simple, yet firm heart to heart.
Ashby Kaestner, who starred for the Sabres’ lacrosse teams from 2003-06 and went on to play at Georgetown University, found that out in May 2005, after receiving a yellow card for an illegal check with 14 minutes remaining in the Eastern Shore Independent Athletic Conference championship against Worcester Prep.
“He didn’t yell or scream,” Kaestner said. “We’re down and I’m having the worst game of my whole life and he takes me out of the game and I’m standing next to him. He’s like, ‘You’ve got to pull it together,’ and gets very stern with me. It was just a moment of coaching that I guess I’d never heard from him. And he was very motivational and was like, ‘I believe in you, and I know you can play better than this. Get back in there and do better.’”
Worcester Prep moved into the lead, but Christie Kaestner — Ashby’s younger sister — set up April Hall for the goal that forged an 11-11 tie. Morse then sent Ashby Kaestner back in there and the junior proceeded to score four straight goals — and five of the next six — to help fuel the Sabres to a 17-13 victory and their first ESIAC tourney title.
“That was my favorite memory of him,” Ashby Kaestner said. “I’ve always felt like he thought of us, especially me, as like another daughter. And every time I come back and I see him he was so excited to see us. He just lit up. And I just think we had this special bond, and it started with this lacrosse team. He was just a good-natured, kind-hearted man.”
He was also a man of great focus, who could become so locked into a game’s flow, direction and detail that he occasionally lost track of what was happening.
“I think one of the funniest things I can remember, we played Gunston my senior year, and I guess I just had a great day,” said Christie Kaestner, who went on to play at Duke, and last year was an assistant coach for Ohio State’s women’s lacrosse team. “And at one point I had actually scored more goals than the entire other team and he kind of pulled me out and put me on the bench. And he didn’t even realize that was happening. He was just so intent on how the game was going in general. But I remember him laughing to me, being like, ‘Oh, I guess I probably should have pulled you out a little while ago.’ And we both kind of laughed about it.”
Like many coaches, though, the Morse effect went beyond the field.
“As a coach he was just incredibly dedicated to his athletes both on and off the field,” said April (Hall) Chaffe, a 2008 graduate who played lacrosse with the Kaestners and Julie Morse. “He was a ver y caring individual. He loved all the kids and gave them individualized attention. And he was really great at identifying when a player was having a bad day and taking them aside and talking to them about it, and letting them know that he cared and encouraging them in any way that he could.
“For me it’s probably just a big picture,” added Chaffe, who now sells commercial real estate in California. “High school can be a difficult time, and that’s no secret. And there were just so many days when I didn’t believe in myself. But he chose to believe in me and see the good in me and encourage me when I was having some of my worst days. There were tons of games where he pulled me aside and was like, ‘What are you doing? You are so much better than this.’”
The game Morse knew perhaps better than any other, was soccer. He played for the legendary Denver Leach at St. Michaels High, before the Saints went on their glorious run of nine Bayside Conference championships in 10 years. While the Saints were dominating conference play, Morse was playing defense and goalie at then-Salisbury State before transferring to the University of Maryland — he did not play for the Terps — and earning his degree in physical education.
He began his coaching career as a swim instructor in Salisbury. After a year he moved back home and took over as head swim coach for the Miles River Yacht Club in the late 1970’s through early ‘80s. Before long, he and his brother, David, were coaching Talbot youth soccer. But before Morse starting infusing players with an unwavering belief they were better than they were on sub-par days, came perhaps a harder piece of coaching — convincing young, unsure players that ‘You can do this’, that they had the ability and talent to do more than they thought.
“From the soccer side of it, there was moments when he would encourage people to take people on (at) the attacking end of the field,” said current Sts. Peter & Paul boys’ head soccer coach G.R. Cannon, who played from age 8 to 11 for Morse on the Talbot Titans. “I can still hear his voice going, ‘G.R., I told you to take him on,’ in a good way.
“In this day in age, you would deem him a players’ coach,” said Cannon, whose teammates on those Titans teams included Dantoine Bryan, Danny Meehan and Jason Ewing. “He was hard, but he was fair.
“All he wants at the end of the day, whether it’s good or bad, is for you to put yourself out there,” Cannon continued. “That’s a testament to who he is. And I’ve always liked the fact that he didn’t deviate from that. He would change philosophies and things that needed to be better from year to year, month to month, but he never deviated from the way he was. I think that’s commendable personally. I like that. I think that’s why the players liked him because we knew where we stood. If it wasn’t good enough, we’d hear about it. If it was good enough, whether it was individually or collectively, we’d hear about it.”
Among those hearing about it was Morse’s son, Brion, whose father coached him through the youth ranks and as an assistant at Sts. Peter and Paul during the mid-2000s, when the Sabres were perennial contenders in the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association playoffs.
“He just had a presence on the field with his leadership and strong character,” Brion said of his father. “He didn’t tolerate a lot of nonsense. He respected all his players. He treated them all equally, no matter if you were the best player on the team, or if you were the worst player on the team. He loved coaching. That was his passion.”
As sophomores, Brion Morse and longtime friend Logan Berrier helped the Sabres go 16-1-2 in 2003, which ended with Berrier netting a hat trick in a 3-0 victory over Baltimore Lutheran in the MIAA C championship game — Sts. Peter & Paul’s second straight title. The Sabres went 13-3 a year later, losing to Glenelg Countr y School in the MIAA C final, then moved to the B conference in 2005, where they fell short in the playoffs to Boys Latin.
“Once the game started he didn’t do a whole lot of screaming and yelling,” Brion Morse said. “I mean he might get upset about a bad call once in awhile, but he never was yelling at his players during the game or none of that stuff. Of course, at halftime he might get a little vocal, just to pump the team up a little bit. But he was even tempered on the field. Even after a tough loss, he didn’t get mad.”
That didn’t mean he didn’t get his point across.
“A man of few words,” Julie Morse said of her father. “But when he spoke you definitely were paying attention. There was a look and a (index) finger, pointing to you to come talk to him. I think Logan got that a couple more times than anybody else [laughing].”
“Yes,” Berrier said laughing, making no effort to deny Julie Morse’s finger-pointing assessment. “There’s one stor y that he would always give me a hard time about, and we laugh about it still to this day. We were playing in the playoffs (against Boys Latin) in the MIAA and he was at the game. I had a breakaway and instead of taking the easy way, I decided to showboat a little bit and I hit a shot from about midfield and it banked off the crossbar. It hit the crossbar so hard that it went all the way back to midfield. And we ended up losing that game 2-1, which if I score that goal would have changed the momentum of the game. I just felt so bad, and every time I looked over at Mr. Morse he just shook his head. But that was the type of guy he was. He didn’t chew me out. He always ended it on a high note.
“I was a gifted athlete and he saw that, so he always pushed me kind of harder than a lot of other people, which I appreciated,” said Berrier, who went on to play at Queens University. “He saw my potential at a young age.
“He was more than a coach to me,” Berrier continued. “Brion’s always been like my brother. We grew up together. He (Mr. Morse) was always there, whether it was on the field or off the field. He liked to win. He liked to coach. He knew when to get stern. It would happen every once and awhile if his players weren’t doing what he asked them to do he would get them in line. He kept things positive. But like I said, when it was time, and the game was on the line, or if something needed to happen, he always knew the time to say, ‘Hey, kick it into gear. This is what you need to do.’”
When Sts. Peter and Paul needed an athletic director for the 2004-05 school year, Morse filled the role, taking over a department with over 10 programs, including the area’s first high school swim team coached by George Higley. Higley helped found the Eastern Shore High School Swimming Championships, five years before the Mar yland Public Secondary School Athletic Association began holding its state championships in 2007. When the Eastern Shore meet dissolved with the emergence of the state meet, the Sabres continued competing in the MIAA championships, the Easterns, and the National Catholic championships.
“He was the type of guy, you could come to him with an idea with the kids, trying to better the program, and he’d always green light it,” said Higley, who had Morse’s daughter, Megan, on his Sts. Peter and Paul swim teams. “He was always looking to improve. He took the athletics over there to another level. He allowed coaches to coach. He was a good fit because it was about team and it was about sportsmanship.
“He was just connected,” Higley continued. “Every place you look in the community now, you talk about lacrosse, you talk about soccer, you talk about swimming, he impacted everything. He either got something started or moved it along to the next level.”
Morse would have quietly and politely moved his way to the front of the line — undoubtedly saying, “Excuse me,” and “Pardon me,” the whole way — to tell anyone his knowledge of girls’ lacrosse wasn’t on the same level as his soccer acumen, when he took over as head coach of the Sabres in 2005.
“He definitely would be the first to tell you that he was not a lacrosse coach,” Julie Morse said. “He didn’t know ver y much about the Xs and Os, and I think the Kaestners could tell you that. I think they definitely taught him more than he taught them in terms of lacrosse.”
That didn’t mean his glasses had become smudged to the point he could no longer see, or that all his other coaching senses had suddenly been dulled. He learned the game and its Xs and Os. He still had an eye for assessing talent, still knew what skills, speed, toughness and heady play looked like, and pooled those qualities to put the pieces in their proper place to build teams that were perennial championship contenders.
“He just knew other people’s strengths,” Julie Morse said. “So he would take people on my team that were the fastest, and he wouldn’t put them at midfield, because he already probably had some pretty skilled midfielders, and he threw them back on defense because that’s what we needed them to do; get a groundball and run up the field.
“So I think he knew talent and knew where we needed people’s specific skills on the field,” Julie Morse continued. “I changed around a lot in my high school career. I started as a defender because that’s what we needed. Then I moved to middie because that’s what we needed. Then I saw some time more as an attacking midfielder my senior year, because that’s what we needed. He definitely knew where to put people depending on our team dynamic.”
By the time he stepped down after the 2012 season, Morse had led the Sabres to a record of 103-18-1, including six ESIAC tournament championships in eight years.
“If you ever saw him coach a game, he never really said a whole lot during the game, coaching,” Julie Morse said. “I think he really believed in letting the players play, believing that they know what they’re doing. ‘I trust that we’ve taught them enough to play.’ And I think he just wanted us to play it out. He trusted us so he didn’t feel like he needed to get all up in arms about the refs, or all up in arms about our play. He just trusted the game and trusted us.”
Mike Morse returned as girls’ head lacrosse coach at Sts. Peter and Paul in 2016 — his final season — with a staff that included one particularly familiar face — Julie. A few months later, Julie, who played at Loyola, landed a job as an assistant for Washington College’s women’s lacrosse program.
“He’s the whole reason why I even applied for this job,” said Julie, trying to keep her emotions in check. “So that’s why I’m here because he wanted me to do it. So I said, ‘I’ll give it a shot.’ And I got it, and I’m loving it.”
Julie Morse said she’d like to see where lacrosse takes her on the coaching ladder. But as she prepares for her second year at Washington, she’s already doing things like her father.
“I would definitely prefer to pull out a kid from a drill and talk to them, or pull out a kid from a game and talk to them one on one about what I’d want them to be doing than call them out in front of the whole team,” Julie Morse said. “There are some coaches that would yell at that player and rile ‘em up. He never would call anybody out in front of the entire team. He was one to pull that kid aside and tell them what they needed to hear in that moment. And I think we all kind of understood when that happened that he was just trying to get the best out of us and help us win. He did it the right way I think.”
It didn’t matter what sport he was coaching, Mike Morse had a way of making kids believe in themselves.
Mike Morse and his sister Debbie McQuaid enjoyed needling each other over field hockey and lacrosse.
Whether he was on a pool deck or the sidelines, it was common to Mike Morse hold one-on-one talks with his players.
Mike Morse with wife, Anne, and daughter Julie, who played for her father all four years at Saints Peter and Paul High.
Mike Morse, right, with assistant Dave Morrell, had a way of quietly getting his point across.