As Angela Morton sits in the stands at Caroline High School softball games, she’s noticed her daughters have a pregame ritual.

Before sophomore Maya Morton throws the first pitch, Cavaliers’ second baseman Brianna Morton hands her the ball.

The sisters then look up to the sky for a short conversation with their father and former Little League coach Leslie Morton Jr., who died two years ago at age 36.

“Coach Junior,” as he is called by his Little League players, coached more than half of the current Caroline team that is enjoying one of its best seasons in recent memory.

The Cavaliers (7–2, 4–2 Battlefield District) have an extra bit of incentive to continue to thrive.

They want to honor the memory of their late coach and also provide mental health awareness on behalf of their mentor, who took his own life while silently enduring internal struggles.

“We just push harder because we know he’s watching over us,” Maya said. “And we’ve got to make him proud.”

Maya and Bri have done just that.

Maya is batting .655 with two home runs, four doubles and 14 RBIs, while also serving as the Cavaliers’ starting pitcher.

Bri, a junior leadoff hitter, is batting .323 with three home runs, 10 RBIs and seven stolen bases.

When they’ve had rough outings, such as in losses to King George and Eastern View, they’ve bounced back quickly in part because at an early age they’ve had to learn resiliency.

“I just wanted them to get back to normal,” Angela Morton said of their progress since their father’s death. “I wanted them to get back to playing the sport they love. They’re great at what they do. I didn’t want them to lose it. I’m just so happy they’re back on the field.”

BOND GROWS STRONGER

When Maya was 6 and Bri was 7, their father introduced them to softball.

They’d rotate between pitching and catching as Coach Junior taught them the fundamentals of the sport.

“We started off really bad,” Maya recalled.

That soon changed.

The girls became fixtures in the Caroline Little League and their dad was one of the coaches. They formed close bonds with their teammates and their teammates’ families.

The closeness of the group proved essential when Coach Junior died on April 5, 2017, after being hospitalized for two weeks.

It was the height of softball season. Maya was an eighth-grade junior varsity player while Bri was a freshman alternating between JV and varsity.

Two JV games were postponed because the entire team was grieving and supporting one another. Many of those players are on varsity now.

“Between teams that I’ve played on and other teams that I’ve coached, this is the closest knit team I’ve ever been a part of,” Caroline head coach Jasmine Blackwell said.

Bri craved normalcy and went back to school three days after her father succumbed. Maya grew closer with teammate and friend Olivia Taylor, who was at the hospital with her the entire two weeks before Coach Junior died.

Angela Morton said the support was critical because “when everything happened, they didn’t want to see a softball.”

They bounced back with help from their teammates and coaches.

“We knew we had to be there as a team for Maya and Bri, but also for each other because Coach Junior taught all of us everything we know about softball,” Taylor said. “So we all grieved together—inside of school, outside of school, on the field—we were literally sisters.”

‘NO SIGNS AT ALL’

Coach Junior was known as being fair, firm and sometimes lighthearted with his players.

Bri Morton said her dad was harder on her and Maya than their teammates. She recalls a time when they had to run as punishment for bringing a sibling disagreement to the playing field.

From that moment, she learned never to allow personal issues to affect the team.

Blackwell, who knew Coach Junior for a short period of time, said he appeared to be happy go-lucky. Maya said her father always wanted to make sure others were joyful and laughing.

For Angela Morton, there were “no signs at all” that her husband was struggling.

In retrospect, she and her daughters believe he never got over the death of his father, Leslie Morton Sr., less than nine months earlier.

“That was so hard on him because that was his only parent,” Angela Morton said. “When he passed, he felt like he didn’t have a parent. He looked at my grandmother, who is 96 now, and he used to tell her that she was his grandma.”

Bri believes her father hid his pain. She said he “kept a straight face for us because we’ve known him as a strong individual and a strong-minded person.”

“I guess he didn’t want us to see him down,” Bri said.

MAKING A PACT

The Morton family doesn’t want Coach Junior’s death to be in vain.

They’ve become advocates for suicide and mental health awareness. Along with their teammates and coaches, they wore T–shirts in his memory when his death occurred.

The family has made a pact to participate in one or more Mental Health Awareness walks per year. They’ve done at least one each of the past two years and were joined by their teammates and coaches in 2017.

Bri said at school she takes notice when any of her classmates appears downtrodden and offers compliments to “brighten their day.”

She also comforts friends that have lost loved ones.

“We’re more aware of things,” Bri said. “We know how to treat them, how to talk to them and their families better because we were in that position. We know that we needed someone. We were at a point we didn’t think we could talk to anybody, but people were there for us.”

Bri and Maya relied on their softball family to escort them through that dark time. The healing process is still ongoing. After a Caroline Little League team qualified for the state tournament, players put their medals on Coach Junior’s grave site.

After each home run, Bri takes the ball she sent over the fence to her father’s grave and replaces the ball from the previous homer. Maya said it’s sometimes heartbreaking to know her dad—the one who introduced her to the sport—isn’t physically present as she’s realizing her potential at the varsity level.

But Bri senses he’s there watching over the team.

“When he first passed, we saw butterflies everywhere,” Bri said. “When we see butterflies now, we all look at each other and think of dad. He’s out there with us every step of the way.”

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Taft Coghill Jr: 540/374-5526 tcoghill@freelancestar.com

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