Gregg Bell Unleashed
Feb. 16, 2011
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SEATTLE - Turns out, winning isn't quite everything. At least not to Sarah Morton.
Loyalty sure is, though.
"I've wanted to be a Husky since I was young," Washington's point guard, fierce leader and only senior said Tuesday inside Hec Edmundson Pavilion, the only college court she's ever wanted to be in. "I felt at home. It's a hard feeling to describe. I felt like I belonged, almost."
This week, the former little blonde girl from Monroe, Wash., who began coming to Huskies games when she was in fourth grade - a four-star recruit who wanted to play for the Huskies so badly she called Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer a few years ago to say no to a scholarship offer from one of the nation's elite women's basketball programs -- is playing her final two regular-season home games at UW.
Hers has been more trying than perhaps any career in the history of Washington women's hoops.
"Morty" was one of seven recruits in the Huskies' 2007 signing class, which was among the best then-coach June Daugherty ever attracted to UW. But in the spring of that year the Huskies fired Daugherty, and her staff was either let go or chose not to return, following a first-round loss in the NCAA tournament.
First-time coach Tia Jackson arrived. She jolted Morton and her teammates with a demanding persona and practice regimen.
The new players saw the nurturing Daugherty as a mother. They saw the hard-line, hard-driving Jackson as no-nonsense.
All but one of Morton's friends left. Yep, five of the seven in that ballyhooed UW recruiting class wanted no part of the challenging regime change. The almost unheard-of desertion slowed the program's progress for years.
Katelan Redmon went home to Spokane to play at Gonzaga. Jess McCormack returned home to New Zealand. Morton remembers her roommate those first months at UW, Candice Nichols, sobbing and miserable over Daugherty's ouster. Nichols left to Loyola Marymount.
Morton was also close with Kali Bennett -- was. Bennett transferred to Arizona State.
Only Morton and Mackenzie Argens of Seattle's Roosevelt High School, best friends and select-team pals since eighth grade, stayed. Morton says she never wavered in her decision. Make that, her conviction.
"Once I signed, I was a Husky for life," she said. "I always wanted to come here. I love the school. I liked the girls on the team. It was close to my family. There were more aspects than just basketball. And when I met Coach J, I knew I liked her from Day One."
Thursday night, Morton's Huskies (10-12, 5-8 Pac-10) host Bennett's Sun Devils (14-8, 6-6) at Alaska Airlines Arena. Saturday afternoon before tipoff against Arizona (14-9, 5-7), Morton will be the only Husky honored on UW's Senior Day. Argens took a medical-redshirt year for a knee injury and won't be a senior athletically until next season. That leaves Morton, who turned 22 last week, the first and only Husky to play through all four seasons of Jackson's UW tenure.
"I've already told her I'm going to be emotional," said Argens, who has come to value Morton's wit and sarcastic sense of humor while being her roommate for the last three years. "She has a strong personality.
"I mean, she's gone through a lot."
Morton says she's fine with walking solo onto the court before Saturday's game. She's over her recruiting class abandoning her.
"At first I was more hurt," Morton told me just off the main court at Hec Ed. "We were kind of in this together. You come in with that class and you are excited to finish out. I was already excited -- `Oh, my gosh! Our senior year is going to be so much fun, being able to experience four years with you guys and then finally being able to end it with a bang.'
"But in the long run, you have to do what makes you happy. And if this wasn't the place for you then, hey, you've gotta go find the place that you fit. The five who left, I'm happy for them."
She's even more thrilled for herself.
See, Morton hasn't just persevered. She hasn't just endured. She is thriving. The only senior on a developing team that is imposing its will on the Pac-10 with rugged defense had 18 points and eight assists in a Huskies win at California last weekend. Then her 3-pointer had UW within 3 late before a loss at Stanford.
Since conference play began on New Year's Eve, the point guard is leading the Pac-10 in assists at 5.7 per game.
And it seems to me she's miles ahead of the rest of the league in fortitude.
"I really enjoyed June. I loved her staff. They are great people. But I wasn't tempted (to leave)," Morton said. "When I signed here, I signed with the school, not just with the coach."
While her colleagues left, Morton embraced Jackson's transformation of the program through long practices, endless running and exacting standards.
"I really loved Coach J. I wanted a demanding coach, that's what I really enjoy," Morton said. "I wanted to be pushed. I didn't want to be complacent. I wanted to get better."
If you haven't figured it out by now, Morton doesn't do complacency. There's not much time for that when you are becoming the captain, the point guard and the Pac-10's assist leader -- all in the aftermath of not one but two reconstructive knee surgeries.
Morton tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee in a freak, non-contact injury in a game during her junior season at Monroe High School. Almost a year to the day later against the same team, Marysville-Pilchuck, she tore the ACL plus the meniscus in her right knee while getting hit on a layup.
"I really developed and maybe matured a little faster just with my and being able to handle such a big transition," she said. "That was such a big phase in my life that really helped me learn about myself and my body, especially, what I can handle and what I can't and how to push myself."
She learned one other thing: That Husky loyalty works both ways.
Some schools may have quietly pulled their scholarship offer from a player who had two major knee reconstructions in the two seasons immediately prior to signing day.
Not Washington. Not Daugherty.
"I remember her talking to me (days after the second knee injury). She said, `I know you are going to come back healthy and stronger. I know you are going to come back even better than you were before,'" Morton recalls.
"They had a lot of faith in me, and a lot of loyalty. I was really happy to hear that."
Morton had people around Monroe telling her to keep the second ACL injury quiet. They believed if word got out she would risk losing her UW scholarship. Suddenly, Morton was a teenager fearing for her immediate athletic and academic future. She didn't have a Plan B. She never thought she needed one.
Within days, Daugherty allayed her fears. Her Huskies scholarship offer still stood.
"Once I got that phone call from her, it was reassurance," Morton said. "I was really happy. That definitely washed away my worries."
So when time came months later to choose between jumping ship or enduring the rough waters of UW's transition, Morton returned the loyalty.
Not that it was easy.
"She's one of the toughest kids I've ever met," Jackson said this week.
"For those who have not had ACL injuries - I am the product of them - they are tough. They are tough to deal with mentally. ... To come in with both ACLs repaired, she's dealt with adversity. At that time, she's an 18-year-old kid, probably in the worst (issue) she's ever dealt with in her athletic career."
Jackson was an assistant coach at UCLA the first time she saw Morton, following the point guard's eighth-grade year.
"She was a little skinny kid dribbling her ball at her high school in Monroe," Jackson said. "Now she is a young woman, ready to dominate the world.
"I've learned she's driven. She's hard working," Jackson said. "I truly, truly believe with all my heart that no matter what she touches, it's going to be golden."
And -- without getting all corny here -- isn't that ultimately what college athletics is supposed to produce, for life after the games end?
Jackson still teases Morton for once saying at a summer basketball camp that she was looking forward to being a housewife someday. Until then, Morton wants to stay in sports, perhaps as a nutritionist. Her degree will be in sociology and communications.
Jackson says simply, "I just love her to death."
Jackson has company. Though spurned years ago by Morton, VanDerveer still loves her. The legendary coach still visits with her each time the Huskies and Cardinal play. Heck, Stanford's coach even still talks to Sarah's dad, Mike.
Morton still remembers calling VanDerveer to tell her she was going to UW instead, the same week she called the coaches at Gonzaga and Florida State to decline their scholarship offers.
"She was great," Morton said of VanDerveer, who has won two national championships and 82 percent of her games while leading Stanford to eight Final Fours and 22 NCAA tournaments in 24 seasons. "She was like, `I want you to be happy, Morty' - I think she called me Morty, yeah -- `I want you to be happy. If Washington is the fit for you, that's what you need to do. Your family is great. I know that they will support you up there.'"
They have, going on almost all of their daughter's road trips. And this weekend, Mike and Gwen Morton won't be the only Huskies fans cheering on their fierce - and fiercely loyal - point guard.
"Honor" seems like the perfect word to describe the recognition Morton will get in her final two home games.
"I just want to leave behind that my past can help others, showing that if you never give up, if you always keep working, if you come in to work during the summers, it's going to pay off," Morton said. "It will definitely pay off at the end of your career."
She looks across Hec Edmundson Pavilion for one of the final times in her Huskies career and says she has no regrets.
"I honestly can't think of any. I can't think of one. And I think that's a good thing, eh?" Morton says with a smile. "I can honestly say I have given everything I have, and there are no regrets.
"Yeah, it's been a great four years."
About Gregg Bell Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for The Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.