South Xtra: Steel Valley senior bounces back to have spectacular season

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Two years ago, Derek Morrison was one of the WPIAL's most promising young pitchers.

But soon after his sophomore season with the Steel Valley varsity baseball team, Morrison, a left-hander, was told that he had torn a ligament in the elbow of his pitching arm.

Moments after doctors informed him they would need to surgically repair his ulnar collateral ligament -- a procedure better known as Tommy John surgery -- his father, Mark Morrison, had a heart-to-heart conversation with his son.

"I reacted like any high school kid would," the younger Morrison said. "My dad turned to me in the elevator and told me that I could either feel sorry for myself or I could got out, start smashing the ball and become the best hitter I could be."

Morrison welcomed that advice and went on to become the Ironmen's designated hitter during his junior year and batted .491.

"I spent a lot of time on the bench and I was able to really study the game," said Morrison, a Munhall resident. "The game kind of slowed down for me."

He returned to the mound this season, however, and helped the Ironmen (16-2) capture their second consecutive Section 4-AA title with a perfect 12-0 record before earning a No. 3 seed in the Class AA playoff bracket.

Steel Valley advanced to yesterday's WPIAL Class AA semifinal round against Quaker Valley after beating Apollo-Ridge in the first round and Riverside in the quarterfinals.

A victory would catapult Steel Valley into the title game next week against the winner of the Deer Lakes/Seton-LaSalle game; a loss will have them playing the loser of that matchup in a third-place consolation match with a trip to the PIAA tournament on the line.

"Coming off last season where we won the section title for the first time in 19 years, we came into the season with a lot of confidence," Morrison said. "We worked hard training in the offseason and we quickly saw once the season began that our hitting was spectacular and out pitching was impeccable.

"We really couldn't have asked for much more."

Through the regular season, Morrison batted .458 (22 for 48) with 24 runs batted in and posted a 5-0 record as a pitcher with 43 strikeouts. He also allowed just one earned run to pick up his sixth victory during Steel Valley's 14-7 win last Saturday against Riverside.

"He's our leader," Steel Valley coach Tim Vickers said. "He's our emotional leader. He's our vocal leader and he's the quiet leader who leads by example.

"When the bat is in his hands, he's the most dangerous hitter in our lineup. He's one of the hardest working kids I've had in my eight years [as Ironmen coach]."

A sturdy 6-foot-2, 220-pound left-handed pitcher and left-handed hitter, Morrison posted a 4-0 pitching record as a freshman before going 4-2 during his sophomore season.

"Coming off great pitching seasons as a freshman and sophomore before missing a year, he has really cleaned up his mechanics," Vickers said. "He has been more consistent on the mound in all facets with his mechanics and has hit his spots better than ever.

"His ability to adapt from situations has really stood out. He's humble enough to make a change when he needs to. He's challenged himself this season, both at the plate and on the mound.

"His mental strength has really been impressive."

Morrison, who plays right field when he's not pitching, still attributes his pitching success this season to the physical therapy he underwent after his surgery.

"You hear a lot of stories about Tommy John surgery helping you throw harder afterward," Morrison said.

"More than anything, physical therapy helped me. You work the muscles and the muscles [throughout the entire arm] you didn't really use before become stronger."

Morrison, however, hasn't been a one-man show for the Ironmen.

Junior Brandon Donovan, junior Cole Eged, senior Andrew Chuba and senior Sam Ligeros also were among the WPIAL batting and pitching leaders during the regular season. Donovan paced Steel Valley by batting .521 with 31 RBIs as well as going 4-0 with 43 strikeouts on the mound. Ligeros posted a 4-1 pitching record.

A Division II recruit for the University of South Carolina Aiken, Morrison plans to retire as a pitcher following his high school career.

"Knowing that I wouldn't be pitching again after high school, I wasn't worried about pitching again as much as I was concerned about throwing breaking balls," he said.

"Whether my team needs me to hit or it needs me to pitch, I was going to do whatever my senior year in order to compete for a WPIAL championship."

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