Whether on the softball field or basketball court, it’s a pretty good bet that Morgan Willingham is in the middle of the action for the Pepperell Lady Dragons.
Willingham has become a key part of both Pepperell programs in the past couple years whether it’s starting at catcher and producing as one of the leading hitters in the middle of the lineup for Coach Jeff Rickman’s squad or helping out in a big way on the basketball court as a member of the starting five and top scorer for Coach Emily Claytor’s team.
Willingham, a junior, is in the middle of a stellar junior softball season on the diamond as she has been a huge part of the Lady Dragons’ recent eight-game winning streak that has the team in prime position to obtain one of the Class AA State Playoff spots from Region 7-AA and possibly a home playoff series in the first round. She has continuously come up with clutch hits at the plate and also served as a steady defensive presence behind the dish.
This Fall followed up a great season on the court last Winter where the sophomore Willingham stood atop the stat sheet for the Pepperell Girls basketball team as the team’s most consistent scorer, team MVP award winner and First-Team All-Region selection.
Willingham does all that while also maintaining her good standing in the classroom off the field as she has plans to continue her academic and athletic career behind high school wherever the right opportunity presents itself.
Recently the Rome News-Tribune caught up with Willingham to discuss the current softball season and the Lady Dragons’ impressive play of late, the challenges and rewards of being a catcher, her impressive sophomore basketball season, her memories as an athlete at Pepperell High, the influence her coaches have had on her, how tough it is balancing school and playing multiple sports and her future plans, among other subjects.
Here’s what she had to say:
RN-T: How is softball season going right now and what has helped the team play as well as it has the last few weeks? What are your expectations for what this team can accomplish down the stretch?
Willingham: I think for the rest of the season we could accomplish winning the last three games and being the No. 2 seed in our region. My expectations are to win all three because our team has really improved in the last several games. My expectations are high for this team.
RN-T: How tough is it being a catcher and what makes it such a difficult but important position on the field?
Willingham: It’s a hard position to explain to people because they don’t know the reality of it. You’re basically like the captain of the field. You see everything that happens. You know what can be accomplished. You see every little thing. You see behind people, and you get to call the pitches so you know where the ball should be placed and where it might be hit. You can really see how the players are going to react to the ball and where the ball is going before the rest of them see it. I think it’s one of the toughest positions on the field, but I’ve done it since I was six years old.
RN-T: How excited are you for this coming basketball season after a strong sophomore year and a lot of experience returning for the team?
Willingham: This coming season we have a lot more than what we had last year. Last year we only had nine players so we were very limited on a lot of stuff. We couldn’t have any injuries because it would’ve made it really tough. This year I’m really excited. We have a bunch of young girls coming up and getting more experience, and I think we have a shot at possibly winning the region. I think that we should be able to beat any team we play in our region. We have some really good shooters, and we can read each other very well. We have several girls coming back so we can read each other very well and know how each other reacts and plays when we’re on the court.
RN-T: What is your favorite memory as an athlete at Pepperell High?
Willingham: My favorite memory was last year in the playoffs when we were playing at Pace Academy and we turned a double play to win and move on to the next round. I helped turn the double play. We got a runner out at home, and I turned and threw to third for the double play to end the game. It was really cool to win and move on and be a part of that play.
RN-T: Which one of your coaches has had the biggest influence on you and why?
Willingham: My favorite coach is Coach Agan. He has instilled in me to work hard, and he has pushed me over my limits to accomplish something. He has made me a better player by motivating me and pushing me to do something I didn’t think I could do. He has pushed me to be the best player I can be and keeps pushing me and keeps me in line. He makes me a better player and a better person. I think he has definitely had the biggest influence on me as a coach.
RN-T: What’s it like playing in rivalry games against other local teams? How much more does that add to the atmosphere and importance of the game?
Willingham: It makes it cooler because it really pumps us up before the game. We have a big crowd here and makes us want to win the game even more. It makes use want to look good as a team in front of everyone and hopefully makes our rivals nervous. We are pumped up and having a good time. But when it comes to the game, we know we have to take care of business on the field. I think that when it comes to our rivals, we play better because we’re more focused on the game itself.
RN-T: How tough is it balancing athletics and academics and how do you get it done?
Willingham: I have to balance my time. I have practice almost every day after school so I have to use any time I have. Like if I have 20 minutes to study before practice I have to work it in. And then after practice it might be a late night where I have to stay up a little longer than I wanted to in order to get my homework done and keep my grades up…because school comes before sports. If I don’t have the grades, I don’t get to play sports. I have to balance my time between those but put school before sports.
RN-T: Who is an athlete you admire or try to model yourself after?
Willingham: Anna Shelnutt…she’s the catcher for Florida State, and I’ve been watching her a lot just to see how she deals with the game, how she deals with challenges. If they lose a game or she messes up, I watch how she deals with it. I try to make myself better just by watching her play and seeing how she reacts. It makes me want to be more like her. I also watch how she does stuff differently that I can learn.
RN-T: What are your plans for after high school?
Willingham: I want to play in college. My dream college is Oklahoma, but if I don’t get to go there, I would be good going with a Division-II school. I want to get a scholarship playing softball, and my plan is to become an anesthesiologist and pursue being a doctor.