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Hawkeye pitcher Marcus Morgan gave ailing coach Rick Heller great medicine
Iowa sophomore is the fifth of five children of former Hawkeye basketball player Michael Morgan who are Division I athletes, but the first in baseball
IOWA CITY — Marcus Morgan had just pitched six hitless innings for Iowa in its 9-0 baseball win over Michigan State Friday night, but the Iowa City West grad had no family present to witness it.
It was no snub. The sophomore’s parents were in Cedar Falls for the Northern Iowa graduation ceremonies that included Morgan’s sister, Cailyn.
“I told them they better be at my graduation,” Morgan said with a smile.
It was quite a night for the family, one of so many through the years. Each of Morgan’s three sisters and one brother have been Division I basketball players. Crystal Smith played at Iowa during four of the seven years Michael Morgan was an assistant coach for Lisa Bluder. Jeremy, Mikaela and Cailyn Morgan played at Northern Iowa.
Cailyn isn’t done with UNI basketball. She will use her COVID-19 waiver to play a fifth season while she pursues a master’s degree.
“They open against Iowa,” Michael Morgan said. “I joked to her she has to guard Caitlin Clark again. She’s guarded Caitlin since she was in high school.“
Michael played basketball at Iowa from 1984-1988.
“I was on a recruiting visit 40 years ago, on a spring trip when there was a late signing period,” he said. “I’m from Louisiana. I called my mother and said ‘It’s sleeting in April.’ She said ‘Just finish it out.’
“Forty years later, I’ve lived here and raised a family. It’s just been awesome.”
Cris Morgan, Michael’s ex-wife, has taught in the Iowa City Community School District for 35 years. Mikaela has followed Cris into teaching after a 109-game career at UNI. Jeremy is playing pro basketball in Europe.
And now, Marcus is playing college … baseball?
“I know a lot about basketball,” Michael said, “but baseball is a different beast.”
Marcus was a four-sport star at West. He was The Gazette’s 2021 Male Athlete of the Year, like Jeremy was in 2013. Marcus had a football offer from Iowa State and a basketball offer from UNI. He chose baseball at Iowa.
With Brody Brecht experiencing recent control problems, Iowa Coach Rick Heller moved Morgan into the Friday pitching slot to open the three-game home series against Michigan State. Morgan walked the first two hitters.
He then got a strikeout and a double play, and no Spartan got past first base in the five innings that followed. Morgan had four walks and a hit batsman, but struck out six and mixed his 96 pitches beautifully.
“A great start,” Heller called it. “You can always say you wish it had been a little cleaner, but he had great stuff tonight.”
Jared Simpson spaced three hits over the final three innings in relief of Morgan without allowing a run, giving Iowa a rare Big Ten shutout.
“A three-hit shutout against the best-hitting team in the league, that’s a pretty impressive night on the mound,” said Heller.
“I had way too many leadoff walks,” Morgan said. “There’s lots of room for improvement there.”
Maybe, but find the college coach who wouldn’t take six hitless frames from his starter every time out. The Hawkeyes certainly welcomed it in their quest to stay in the Big Ten regular-season title mix and cement a spot in the NCAA tournament.
Good pitching is good for what ails a coach. Heller has had quite the eventful last 10 days or so.
He found out a few of his players are among Iowa’s 26 across five sports who are being withheld from competition because of a sports-wagering investigation. He got his 1,000th career win. And Monday, he had knee surgery.
As a baseball coach, he said, “Something’s out of your control every day. I would say over 37 years I’m pretty darn good at being able to lock in when I need to and being able to put things behind me and move forward and just focus on the task at hand.”
Knee pain had tormented Heller since January. “It hit an all-time low on Sunday,” he said.
“Dr. (Brian) Wolf (the head team physician for UI athletics) is a master. I asked if he could get me in on Monday and get me on the field on Friday. He said ‘I think I can, but you’re not going to be running.’”
Pitchers Morgan and Simpson helped their coach by not forcing him to make any mid-inning walks to the mound to replace them. It is, after all, a team game.
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