An illness cost Luke Morton two weeks of his sophomore season at North Central Texas College, a crucial time for any junior college athlete with four-year university aspirations. After returning from a bout with mononucleosis, a home-plate collision resulted in a bruised spleen and two more weeks on the disabled list.
Despite the missed time, the 2015 Waxahachie graduate bounced back, quickly, and caught the eye of Tarleton State University head baseball coach, Bryan Conger. After two seasons as a North Central Texas College Lion, Morton will soon travel to Stephenville as a Tarleton Texan.
“It definitely gives you a reason to play with a little bit of a chip on your shoulder,” said Morton of missing time and having schools that once showed interest lose touch. “[…] But I am excited to go to Tarleton because they are bringing back a lot of core guys. I’m excited to be a part of it and to get there and see what can happen. That conference (Lone Star Conference) is super tough with Angelo State and West Texas A&M being two of the top teams in the country. I’m just excited to get there and compete.”
Listed as a 6-foot-4, 230-pound first baseman, Morton will join a Texans ballclub that finished 28-20 in 2017 after back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since 2008-09. Since Conger took over as the skipper in 2008, the Texans have appeared in seven Lone Star Conference (LSC) tournaments and two NCAA tournaments (2011, 14). According to the TSU baseball media guide, the Texans are 884-740-6 all-time.
“It’s weird, but going in as a junior it is basically like I am going in as a freshman, and I’m going to have to prove myself,” Morton said. “All of those things you did in junior college are gone. When you get there, you are a Tarleton Texan now. You are not a North Central Lion. You have to prove yourself. I am really excited.”
During his senior campaign at NCTC in Gainesville, Texas, Morton launched seven home runs with eight doubles and posted a .556 slugging percentage to go with his 40 RBIs and 36 runs scored. He also boasted a .353 batting average and .454 on-base percentage.
All of which jumped rather significantly from his freshman season, which he credits to his finding of a new, more powerful and compact swing, as well as a little extra time in the weight room. In fact, Morton said his swing has changed at least twice since he posted a .484 batting average during his senior year under Tracy Wood at Waxahachie High School. He also slugged just two home runs en route to back-to-back all-district selections for the Indians.
“To make the lineup, you have to produce, and I had to change my swing from more of a contact swing to a more powerful one,” Morton explained. “The first year I kind of ran into some trouble, being a freshman, because you are running into guys being drafted or going Division I after their time in junior college. So my swing even changed a lot between my freshman and sophomore years, too. You have to realize you can’t just swing for the fence every time but that you have to stay calm, keep your composure and take a short, compact swing.”
Morton finished his freshman season with six home runs, 13 RBIs, 23 runs scored and slashed 274/.410/.505.
“In high school, I was a little smaller than I am now and I hit for average a lot more,” he said. “But when you get to college and playing first base, if you don’t hit home runs or drive in runs then you don’t play.”
GUTTING IT OUT
Not long after he was cleared to return to the lineup following a few weeks of mono, Morton attempted to derail a catcher at the plate.
“I was hunkered over, and I remember thinking, ‘Man, this hurts,’” he said of the pain felt near his stomach after the home plate collision.
“A couple of innings later it was my at-bat, and after I hit the ball and was running to first, it was definitely one of the worst pains I have ever felt in my life. The first base coach stopped me when I was trying to go back (to the dugout) and told me to go talk to the trainer because he could obviously tell something was wrong.”
At the urging (and literally prodding) of an NCTC athletic trainer, Morton left the ball field and headed to the hospital. It was then that he learned the pain in his side was a bruised and swollen spleen. He recalled a doctor telling him the abdominal organ is supposed to be about the size of a fist, not a grapefruit like his.
“It was tough because I want to be out there playing with my teammates. Especially with it being my last year and wanting to get recruited and show what I could do,” he explained. “But I got to learn a lot from watching or, like with some of those freshman guys, there were teaching moments where guys were asking me about adjustments. It was very humbling.”
By the time he returned to the lineup, NCTC had begun its grueling conference schedule, only adding another difficulty to Morton’s sophomore campaign. Though the first week back was “rough,” Morton said he “kept believing” and putting in work after practice.
THE ROAD THRU JUCO
“Every kid wants to go D1,” said Morton standing outside of Paul Richards Park in Waxahachie. “But, looking back at it, I don’t regret (going to a JUCO) at all.”
As Morton explained, continuing an athletic career at a junior college allows for two more years to mature and “work on your game.” Though the lifestyle is grueling, sometimes playing as many as 10 games in seven days during a 56-plus-game schedule, he “wouldn’t have done it any other way.”
“The lifestyle at a junior college is a lot different but they definitely prepare you for the next level and wherever you want to go. I think if kids will start considering (JUCO), that you can do plenty of things out of junior college.”
Morton, a 2017 first team all-conference and third team NJCAA Academic All-American recipient, noted he was the only all-conference player to not move on to the professional or Division I ranks.
“Don’t take any game for granted because you never know who is watching,” advised Morton to any aspiring collegiate players. “You never know who is at the game.”