For Kate Morris, soccer is a way of life.
It all started on a field in Plymouth, Mich., 17 years ago. A 4-year-old Morris was watching her older brother, Mac, play soccer on an all-boys recreational team.
“She wanted to play with the boys and so she went out and joined the team,” her father, Tim Morris said. “And she was probably better than the boys out there, so the coach asked her to participate on the team with them.”
Her decision propelled her on a journey that started with her on the field as a Division 1 soccer player and now has her on the sidelines as an undergraduate assistant coach.
But before she could experience the thrills and heartbreaks, she first had to step on that field and learn the basics of the sport.
In 2005, 8-year-old Kate Morris started playing with the Novi Jaguars, a club team she’d play on for four years. Her father credits her initial interest in soccer to that team and its coach, Mario Galindo.
“He was just one of those guys that could connect with his players and his team,” Tim Morris said. “And that team went on to win literally every tournament that they went to throughout the country.”
By 2010, a 13-year-old Morris was at the U.S. Soccer ‘96 U-14 National ID Camp and started playing for the Michigan Hawks U-14 team. She stayed with the club as a center midfielder through her high school graduation, foregoing participation on her high school team.
But the early success she had was soon derailed.
The setbacks begin
In 2012, two years after joining the Hawks, Morris tore her left ACL — the first of a string of injuries that would eventually end her college career.
Still with the Hawks, Morris felt a pop in her left knee during her first year of high school while scrimmaging against a boys’ team.
“I was running back towards my goal, and I had a player on my shoulder, behind me,” she said. “And I just like passed it out of bounds and I went to decelerate and my knee just like hyperextended.”
Morris went through an extensive rehab process with her personal trainer, Aaron Byrd, who had also suffered an ACL injury previously. In the beginning, Byrd took things slowly and did a lot of seated exercises with Morris. The rehab exercises were geared toward getting her back into soccer shape.
After eight grueling months, Morris finally returned to the field. It didn’t take long for trauma to strike again.
In March 2014, during her junior year of high school, she felt the familiar pain of a torn ACL in her left knee once again.
“I went to go pressure their outside back and she cut in and I went to change directions, and it just buckled, and I knew right away,” Kate Morris said. “I heard the pop and I felt it.”
Morris had to go through rehab once again, but this time it wasn’t eight months – it was about a year. The second ACL tear was a big blow because they weren’t expecting it.
However, the injury didn’t end her career. She went through rehab again and was determined to get back to the field. She’d committed to UNC the previous year and was looking forward to a rewarding college career.
“She never let it get her down too much but just wanted to keep playing,” her mother, Jean Morris said. “So she was just doing whatever she could to stay on the field and keep working hard to get back to where she was.”
Morris returned to the field in the spring of 2015 and finished out an injury-free senior year, graduating from Ladywood Catholic High School with a 3.9 GPA. She was excited to begin her college career at UNC in August 2015 and hopeful injury wouldn’t strike again.
In January of her first year in Chapel Hill, while playing futsal, Morris tore her meniscus — her third major injury on the same knee.
Just a month later, in order to fix her left knee again, Morris endured a bone graft, meniscus and ACL repair, which took three months to heal but kept her dream alive.
Throughout her recovery process, Morris had many tough days, but she didn’t let those hinder her recovery.
“She had her mind set on not letting the negative things that were going on in her life affect the world around her,” former teammate Frances Reuland said. “But the really more incredible thing is bringing everyone up around her simultaneously.”
Then Morris suffered the final blow — another torn meniscus during March 2018. This was the fourth injury to her left knee and a turning point in her career. In addition to the physical toll the injuries had taken, doubt was starting to creep into her mind about whether she should continue playing.
After talking about it with head coach Anson Dorrance and her parents, Morris decided that it was time to medically retire.
“Once I had officially made that decision, I think it was a huge weight lifted off my shoulders,” she said.
But instead of leaving the team, she took on a new role as an undergraduate assistant coach.
“That’s been really fun because when I’m out there I do feel like I have a role,” Morris said.
Dorrance said the team’s chemistry this year is especially good, partly due to Morris still being around the program. That strong morale has been evident — the team clinched its first perfect mark in ACC play since 2006 with a 10-0 record.
“I also do genuinely give a lot of credit to Kate Morris,” Dorrance said. “I think she’s been fantastic and I’m so glad she accepted this role and I’m so glad she jumped into it with both feet.”
During practice, Morris fills in as an extra goalie. Before games she dances goofy to make her teammates feel loose. But most importantly, Dorrance said she informs him on the chemistry of the players, relating to them on a level the coaches can’t.
“She is an avenue from the players to the coaches, where she knows both sides about what’s going on from the coaches standpoint and the players standpoint,” teammate Samantha Leshnak said.
Morris excels at this role because of her relationship with the team she had while playing. She is able to explain suggestions to the players from the coaches in a 'nicer' way and acts a ‘rock’ for the players.
From trying to get to know everyone on the team to her goofy dances before games, Morris has made the most of her new job. Though she can no longer play competitively, she has made peace with her role.
“I never looked back,” she said, “and I’ve just kept moving forward and making the most of every situation and every opportunity that I’ve had this season.”
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