Before Northside Christian baseball coach Brian Larsen moved to North Carolina, he coached a shortstop named Garrett Wittels at Krop High School in Florida.
For those who follow baseball closely, the name should sound familiar.
Wittels became a recurring figure on ESPN’s SportsCenter broadcasts thanks to a 56-game hitting streak he put together while playing for Florida International University during the 2010 and ’11 seasons. The hitting streak came to an end just two games short of Robin Ventura’s all-time Division I college mark.
Nearly 15 years after coaching Wittels, Larsen says he’s found a young player at Northside Christian who reminds him of his former college standout: freshman shortstop Seth Morgan, who is about to enter his third year as a starter on the Knights varsity team.
“One of the biggest things is that Morgan is extremely coachable and buys into every little thing that you say,” said Larsen of his 5-foot-10, 160-pound middle infielder.
“I coached Wittels for three years and (Morgan) continually reminds me of that kid,” Larsen said. “Garrett would walk by and hear something and just get it. It would just click for him. His baseball IQ is very good and Seth reminds me of him in the way that he’s able to pick up little nuances of the game so quickly.”
According to Larsen, Wittels was just an average third basemen when he first met him, but after three seasons of absorbing everything he could, he’d turned himself into a Division I-caliber shortstop.
“(Wittels) was a hard-nosed scrappy kid and I look at Seth like that,” said Larsen. “He’s a hard-nosed kid, coachable, and always asking me if he can show up early to take extra infield or batting practice. That’s why I see him being very good when he gets older.”
Like Wittels, Morgan played out of position his first varsity season.
As a seventh-grader, Morgan’s hands and ability to put the bat on the ball set him apart from the other boys his age at the Northside baseball tryouts. Larsen moved him from the middle school group to second base for the varsity squad.
When it was Morgan’s turn to take his first ground ball at second during tryouts, Larsen sent the baseball skipping in his direction and, ultimately, right through his legs.
“I booted the very first one,” remembered Morgan. “It went right through my legs. But the coaches knew I was nervous and told me to relax and ‘Do what you know you can.’ ”
Come opening day, Morgan had earned the starting job at second base and, four games into the season, the seventh-grader recorded his first varsity single, turning on a change up and hitting a line drive between third and short.
After initially battling the thought that he was too young to be playing against varsity-level competition, Morgan slowly began to improve at the plate.
“Towards the end of the year I started getting more hits and I had one game during spring break where I hit my first double,” said Morgan. “It one-hopped the fence and I remember standing on second base and feeling like, ‘Maybe I can do this.’ ”
Morgan finished the year with a .200 batting average 10 errors, but with a ton of experience.
“Like any kid in his situation, there were times where he got frustrated,” said Larsen. “But he never went overboard with it, or threw a tantrum. I constantly made sure he was doing all right because he was so young.
“I reassured him that this was about gaining valuable experience and he bought into that and understood. That was one reason he didn’t let the initial struggles bury him.”
In Morgan’s eighth-grade season, Larsen switched him back over to shortstop, and moved him up in the order. He finished the season with just five miscues in the field and a batting average just below .300.
After being held out of the team’s weight training programs because of his age for his first two seasons, Morgan joined the Knights over the summer and is entering this season bigger and stronger than ever.
“I expect big things from him this year,” said Larsen. “He’s still just a freshman and if he continues on the track he’s on, by the time he’s a senior, he’s getting a college scholarship to play somewhere.”