Oct. 26, 2016
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In soccer, the University of Virginia’s presence continues to grow on the United States women’s national team. Named to the U.S. squad that recently played two matches against Switzerland were four former UVA stars: Becky Sauerbrunn, Morgan Brian, Emily Sonnett and Danielle Colaprico.
For Zoe Morse and the other current Cavaliers, the alumni’s success at the sport’s highest level inspires and motivates.
“I think it’s really cool to think that they were once where I am now as a first-year, and it’s a path that you can take,” Morse said. “I want to get to that point and work as hard as I can here, with all the resources that [UVA’s coaches] provide.”
Morse, a freshman from East Lansing, Mich., is a starting midfielder and has scored two goals for eighth-ranked Virginia (12-3-2 overall, 5-2-2 ACC), which closes the regular season Thursday night at Louisville (7-6-4, 2-4-3).
Of the newcomers on the team, Morse has played the most minutes (1,147) this season.
“She ran cross country in high school, and she’s got an amazing engine,” head coach Steve Swanson said. “What’s unique about Zoe, though, is a lot of times cross country runners don’t have a chance of pace. But Zoe has a really good change of pace. So she’s got this heart and lungs that are so valuable for soccer players. She can run all day. And yet she also has a chance of pace that I think is so helpful with being a good midfielder.”
In an era in which many talented athletes start focusing on one sport an early age, Morse took another route. In addition to starring in club soccer for the Michigan Hawks, she played basketball through the ninth grade and was a distance runner at East Lansing High School.
“I wouldn’t have done anything differently,” Morse said. “I think if you specialize too early, you end up burning out, even if you love the sport you’re doing. Also, there’s the advantage of cross-training.”
The sprinting and endurance work she did on the basketball court and in cross country “all help you in soccer,” Morse said.
Her father, who attended Central Michigan as an undergraduate, is a physician who attended medical school at Michigan State. The Morses live about a half-mile from the Michigan State campus, and Zoe grew up as a fan of the Spartans.
“Oh, yeah,” she said, smiling. “I still am.”
Her club coach, Doug Landefeld, is a Michigan State alumnus — as is Swanson — and her hometown school was always an option for Morse. Still, she did not feel obligated to stay in East Lansing.
“And when I was looking for colleges, Doug recommended that I look at Virginia, and I came here and loved it,” Morse said.
She knew little about the University when the recruiting process began, Morse said, but she researched the school online, “and I had heard about Steve from Doug, and I really liked that whole side of it. But also the academics are obviously very good here, and I wanted to do the best that I could with soccer and academics, and I thought this was the perfect combo.”
Morse is the latest in a series of standouts from Michigan to play for the Wahoos. Others have included Lindsay Gusick, Olivia Brannon, Annie Steinlage and Courtney Petersen, a sophomore who joined the program last year. (Petersen is competing for the U.S. under-20 national team this fall.)
“When I was growing up, Michigan didn’t have much soccer at all,” said Swanson, 53, who’s from West Bloomfield, Mich., outside Detroit.
“But what’s amazing is, in the past 25, 30 years Michigan’s been a real strong women’s soccer state, and there’s been a lot of tremendous players that have come out of Michigan.”
Morse arrived for a recent interview after taking a test in biology. Where her academic path will lead her, she’s not sure. A premed curriculum is a possibility. So is UVA’s architecture school.
“So I have to take classes for both, which ends up being very time-consuming, but it’s OK,” Morse said.
The appeal of architecture for Morse?
“Throughout school, I’ve always enjoyed math and science,” she said, “but then also I really enjoy doing artistic things, even if I’m not the greatest at them. I just really enjoy them. So architecture people always talk about how you have to utilize both sides of your brain, and I feel like that would be a good combo for me, because I enjoy both.”
Its architecture, of course, is one of the renowned features of Mr. Jefferson’s University.
“When I was visiting here I wasn’t considering architecture at all, but I was always really in awe of all that stuff,” Morse said. “And then when I got here and started considering it, I started looking around and realizing just how amazing all of his designs and the thought that he put into every little detail are.”
Morse arrived at UVA in late July. A couple of weeks later, she was back in Michigan, this time for the Cavaliers’ training camp, which is held annually in Glen Arbor, about 200 miles northwest of East Lansing. On Aug. 11, Virginia played Michigan in an exhibition in Ann Arbor, about an hour’s drive from East Lansing, and Morse had a large cheering section of family and friends for the game.
Her soccer experience at Virginia has been “amazing,” Morse said. “Obviously, everyone on the team is a really great player, and being able to surround myself with them every day in practice, and also see how they hold themselves outside of practice, it’s helped me develop a lot as a person and a player.”
Morse has represented the U.S. at the U17, U18 and U20 levels, and soccer has taken her to such countries as Jamaica, Costa Rica, Honduras, Spain, England and Mexico.
“For me,” Swanson said, “I’ve always said there are three big transitions you make coming to college: You make an athletic transition in your sport, you make a social transition going from your home to [life] on your own, and you make an academic transition from your high school to the academic rigor of, say, a Virginia.
“Now, some people can handle those transitions easy, and some people it takes a little more time. Some people handle two well and [struggle with] one. The advantage I see for [players with experience on] the national team is that in general they can make that transition to college soccer because of the level they’ve played at.”
For Morse, the adjustment has gone smoothly.
“It’s just amazing that she’s as humble as she is,” Swanson said. “Because she’s an excellent student — always has been — and she’s a superb athlete, and there’s not a lot of things she’s done that she’s not done well. But she’s this easy-going, humble person.”
Morse fits in perfectly, Swanson said, on a team filled with players who have outstanding work ethics.
“They’re disciplined,” he said. “They’re committed. They’re motivated. I think one of the reasons why we were so attracted to Zoe was just who she is on the inside. That’s allowed her, I think, to be successful, and she’s earned everything.
“I think the biggest thing that Zoe can take credit for is she’s earned the respect of her teammates for how hard she’s worked and how much she’s fit in. She’s a great teammate.”
The postseason begins Sunday for the `Hoos. Virginia will play in the ACC tournament quarterfinals, against an opponent and at a site that are still to be determined.
“What I love about this team is, they’ve really gotten better every single day,” Swanson said. “You’d usually say it’s been weekly, but this has been daily. Every single day they’ve seemed to get better. I do not think we’ve peaked yet, but we’re slowly becoming the team we can be.”