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Catawba’s Morris shines as a senior

By Mike London
Salisbury Post
Roger “Bubba” Morris racked up 109 hits at North Rowan, one of the highest totals in school history.
He would have had 110, but David Thomas played center field for Ledford.
Thomas made an airborne, parallel-to-the-ground catch of Morris’ liner to left-center four years ago in Spencer, robbed a sure triple and preserved a victory for the Panthers.
“Sure, I remember that play,” Morris said with a shake of his head. “That was a 1-0 game and we lost. But David’s a good guy. Never mentions it.”
Time flies. Morris and Thomas, Catawba teammates the past four seasons, are winding up college careers that will extend into this week’s South Regional in Tampa.
Thomas has punched his ticket for the Catawba and SAC halls of fame with a relentless, four-year assault on pitchers from both sides of the plate.
Morris’ impact has been more subtle, but he’s batted .311 while playing all four infield positions.
“Utility player” is a tag most athletes sprint away from, but Morris learned to embrace it. Utility didn’t necessarily mean futility.
Not every high school star can handle the adjustment to a downsized role, and Morris was definitely a star in high school. He hit over .400 twice at North and had a career .375 mark. But he was smart enough to figure out versatility was the most important asset he could bring to the table in college.
“You never know if a guy is going to accept that his role is mostly going to be utility, but Bubba took it upon himself to accept it and found his niche,” Catawba coach Jim Gantt said. “He matured a lot, realized he had an important job to do and went out and did it.”
The first college start for Morris was at second base against Pfeiffer on Feb. 11, 2005, and he came through with four hits and three RBIs in a 17-15 victory. He started 12 more games his freshman season.
His sophomore year, Noah Johnson was recruited to play shortstop and Catawba fielded one of the best teams in school history. Morris batted only 12 times for a 47-12 club, but he had seven hits and was 4-for-4 with runners on base.
In 2007, Morris’ patience paid off with his first full-time assignment. When an arm injury forced Zach Evans to move to first base, Morris took over as the regular shortstop. He started 23 games and batted .343 with nine doubles.
“It really wasn’t that tough accepting a utility role in this program because we’ve had such good teams here,” Morris said. “It feels good that we’ve won three conference championships, but we really should have made it four in a row with the talent we’ve had. We have won a lot of games, and I’ve been really proud just to be a part of it.”
Catawba is 154-68 the past four seasons, including 75-18 at Newman Park, Morris’ second home. Morris played there in 2002 for the Rowan County Legion team that won a state championship.
Morris played well at shortstop down the stretch his junior year at Catawba, but when the program had a chance to bring in Chris Ahearn, a talented shortstop who was transferring from Western Carolina, it didn’t hesitate.
Ahearn’s presence put Morris back on the bench at the start of this season, but he accepted the situation in stride.
“Chris is a great player, and he’s been a really big part of everything the team has done this year,” Morris said.
Instead of disappearing, Morris’ role quietly expanded during his senior season.
Morris, who is listed at 5-foot-10, 155 pounds, has been the regular at first base the last month. In terms of reach and height he’s an unconventional first baseman, but the tradeoff is he offers more range and agility at the position than the traditional 6-3, 200-pounder.
“After Weston (Church) got hurt down at North Alabama, we kind of turned things over to the seniors, with Bubba at first and Matt Kepley in left field,” Gantt said. “Those two kind of fought their way into the lineup, and we went on an eight-game winning streak. They’ve produced at the bottom of the lineup, and no one’s overtaken them to get them out of there. We could not have won the conference without them.”
Morris is batting .278 with 20 RBIs and 31 runs scored. He’s started 36 games, including several at shortstop when Ahearn was dealing with a hamstring injury.
Morris worked out at first base in the preseason because Catawba’s freshmen at the same position ó Church and Nathan Furr ó also were pitchers. Gantt anticipated games in which Church or Furr would start at first base, then take the mound in relief with Morris entering the game at first.
But no one, Morris included, envisioned he’d become the full-time first baseman.
“I never played first base, so the last year of my baseball career isn’t when I expected it to happen,” Morris said with a laugh.
He does OK.
In last Thursday’s victory against Erskine, he soared to field a high bouncer and also started a 3-6-1 double play that helped Tim Smith set the school record for pitching victories.
“A lot of good things have happened,” Morris said. “I wish I was just starting out instead of finishing up, but I know I wouldn’t trade the last four years to be anywhere other than Catawba.”
A physical education major with a sterling GPA, Morris plans to stay in the area and may be teaching and coaching at a school in the county next season.
Morris’ father, Johnny, calls him Bubba ó everyone except his girlfriend does ó and he’s watched him come a long way the last four years.
“Bubba was this skinny 135-pound fellow when he came here,” he said. “Now he’s a college graduate, and that’s bigger than baseball.”

Contact Mike London at 704-797-4259 or mlondon@salisburypost.com.

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