Re­mem­ber­ing Morse

Late coach had a way of mak­ing kids be­lieve

Sunday Star - - FRONT PAGE - By WIL­LIAM HAUFE bhaufe@star­dem.com

“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.”

PHOTO SUBMITTED BY GE­ORGE HATCHER

It didn’t mat­ter what sport he was coach­ing, Mike Morse had a way of mak­ing kids be­lieve in them­selves.

PHOTO SUBMITTED BY GE­ORGE HATCHER

Mike Morse and his sis­ter Deb­bie McQuaid en­joyed needling each other over field hockey and lacrosse.

PHO­TOS SUBMITTED BY GE­ORGE HATCHER

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.

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