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Tougher than nails

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Hunter Morse’s story — at least this one, anyway — is still in progress. No one yet knows its ending, but it started more than five months ago, on a warm Friday night last September.HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: AMANDA MILES
 - Hillsboro senior Hunter Morse, who tore his ACL during football season, wrestles against Barlow's Hunter Boelow during the Ron James Round Robin tournament earlier this winter.

Morse’s Hillsboro football squad was playing city rival Glencoe in a nonleague matchup at Hare Field on Sept. 11. It was the second game of the season.

A senior and one of Hilhi’s best athletes, Morse was doing his usual on defense, flying around at linebacker and causing havoc.

And then, as it so often can, life changed in a moment.

On one play, Morse powered up the middle on a blitz and the Crimson Tide quarterback scrambled, but Morse grabbed him. He whipped around on the play and his toe caught on the turf. His right knee twisted, then gave out, and Morse dropped to that green carpet on his home field.

Spartans head coach Adam Reese, who coaches Morse in both football and wrestling, knew that something was wrong and quickly set out onto the field toward his fallen player.

“When a wrestler doesn’t get up, you know something’s wrong,” Reese reflected later, in December, while in the school’s mat room after a winter break practice had just ended.

His teammates also recognized something was amiss. Sage Roundtree, one of Morse’s practice partners in wrestling, was on the field for the play. Roundtree had heard Morse cry out and ran over to try to help him up, thinking perhaps he had pulled a muscle or gotten a dead leg.

“He said he couldn’t get up, and I was scared,” Roundtree said.

Roundtree knew it was bad then.

And, unfortunately, it was. After Morse was brought to the sideline, the school’s team physician examined him and the verdict was one no athlete wants to hear — especially one just starting his senior year and with Morse’s talent and aspirations: torn anterior cruciate ligament.

“My brothers, they all jacked up their knees, and so I knew exactly what that meant, so I was just kind of like, ‘Well, there goes my senior year of sports,’” Morse said.

Diagnostic scans eventually confirmed it. Morse had suffered a torn ACL — a major ligament involved in knee movement and stability — as well as a torn medial meniscus and a sprain to his medial collateral ligament.

For much of the next two days, Morse sat in a recliner at home and iced that knee.

It was a difficult time for Morse, for his family, friends and team. Wrestling teammate and close friend Gabe Schade saw Morse get injured from the Hare Field grandstands, right next to Morse’s father, Dave.

“When it happened, he was basically hating his life, because sports are his life,” Schade said. “That’s his thing. That’s what he excels at. To get an injury like that was terrible, especially in your senior year, and having that much potential, to have something like that happen was devastating.”

This was supposed to be Morse’s big year. As a junior, he picked up first team all-Northwest Oregon Conference and honorable mention all-state honors at linebacker after leading his Spartans to the league title. He then finished third at 170 pounds at the 2015 Class 5A wrestling state tournament. Naturally, he entered his senior year with state title aspirations.

Perhaps even above all that he was, as Reese described him, “the heart and soul of our team.”

“He’s one of the wittiest kids I’ve ever been around,” Reese said. “He just has that innate ability to say the right thing at the right time. As far as his athletic ability on the field, yeah, we missed that, but we missed the leadership more than anything.”

That heart and soul didn’t take long to rebound, though. Even on the field that night, he was asking questions about returning. While the next couple weeks were a bit of an emotional roller coaster as he surveyed how his knee adjusted, Morse decided that instead of an injury story, he wanted a comeback story, torn ligament be damned.

HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: AMANDA MILES - Hilhi senior Hunter Morse celebrates his third-place finish in the 182-pound bracket at the prestigious Reser's Tournament of Champions in January.

In the week of practice following the injury, teammate Jarred Eichstadt said, Morse said he would return for the end of football season and then get back on the mat, win state.

To some, that might seem to reveal a young man’s naiveté or wishful thinking, but Morse has gone out and proved that he could do what few would even try.

“His mindset was just on wrestling once that happened,” Eichstadt said. “He just bounced back so fast.”

A few weeks after the injury, Morse’s father accompanied him on an appointment to see an orthopedic physician. The doctor said the knee needed to be repaired, that he performed surgeries on Fridays and that he was scheduled about three weeks out.

Morse wasn’t having it. So the doctor looked to Dave, who turned to his son.

“I’m not having surgery,” he said.

“And I’m like, ‘OK, game on, kid,’” Dave said.

And it was. Morse made his return to the football field for a couple series on both sides of the ball in the Spartans’ penultimate league game against Milwaukie. He started in the regular season finale against Wilsonville and in Hilhi’s first-round playoff loss at Central. In his return, he switched from linebacker to the line, which didn’t require as much lateral movement.

Then it was time for wrestling season.

For Morse, the why — why he decided to keep going — is simple.

“People are just kind of like, ‘Why are you doing that?’” he said. “It’s like, ‘If you’ve seen how much work I’ve put in, you’d understand.’”

Besides, if anyone could wrestle an entire season minus one ACL, it would be Morse. He has a body made for movement — he is constantly on the go, playing three sports, filling his days with practices — and a work ethic to match. At Hilhi’s Senior Night dual against St. Helens last week, Dave said he wished he could bottle his son’s motivation.

Morse also possesses enough energy to make anyone older than 10 jealous, the inclination to rigorously critique himself and, clearly, plenty of determination.

He would need to marshal all of his abilities to pull off what he was attempting.

“Initially we weren’t sure how he was going to do, but he got out there and just really surprised us, and I think he surprised himself,” said his mother, Debbie.

Reese was not sure how it would go either, entering the season. As he put it, “There’s no playbook for this. It’s kind of learning as we go.” Reese had previously shepherded a wrestler to the finish line who tore an ACL late in the season, but never before had he tried to coach one through a whole winter competing with the injury.

Back when Morse made the decision to try to wrestle, Reese’s initial thought was that Morse might compete in a tournament, take some time off and then repeat. But when the season hit and he realized how difficult that would be, it become more about how to manage Morse. Coach and athlete are constantly checking in, determining when Morse is good to go and when he needs to back off. It’s a testament to their relationship, one that has been forged over four years and across two sports.

Morse knew he could change his mind at any time. His reconstruction surgery date was set long ago for the week after state, but he has always had the option of bumping it earlier if he wanted.

The timing hasn’t changed, though, as Morse continued on week after week.

HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: AMANDA MILES
 - Hillsboro senior Hunter Morse (left) poses with teammate Gabe Schade after both wrestlers were victorious in their individual matches on Senior Night last Thursday against Northwest Oregon Conference foe St. Helens.

Early on, Reese and Morse also got some good input from, of all sources, a rival coach. Longtime Century wrestling coach Guy Takahashi was an all-American at Pacific University in Forest Grove. He had some rare firsthand advice to offer, as he tore his ACL early during his senior year and kept wrestling.

Just a couple of days before the Jaguars and Spartans opened the season at the Ron James Round Robin invite in early December, Takahashi, Reese and Morse were all at a frosh/novice tournament and met up for a chat.

“I told him it can be done,” Takahashi said. “It’s about adjustment, and we as wrestlers, that’s the whole point — we adjust. We’re not like other sports where you just gotta run the same play. We can always adapt.”

So Morse has — about as well as anyone can with a torn major knee ligament. And in his case, that is quite well. Morse sports a 41-5 record entering this weekend’s NWOC district tournament. He has sat out a few matches here and there, but not many, and has backed off at practice when necessary.

His success continues despite that right knee serving as something of a target. There’s no keeping an injury like Morse’s secret when he wrestles wearing a giant brace — the kind that starts at mid-thigh and continues below the knee — with a black sleeve over it.

“I’ve learned a lot about myself with my knee injury, and so have other people,” he noted a bit wryly after the St. Helens dual. “So after that first one, there’s been a little trend of the way people are wrestling me, and so that’s made things a little difficult.”

Morse said he spoke with others in addition to Takahashi who have suffered ACL injuries, so he had some idea of what to expect if the knee gave out on him. It happened for the first time this season at last month’s Oregon Wrestling Classic in Redmond. He was going against Bob Coleman of Hermiston, who went on to win the 182-pound title at last month’s Reser’s Tournament of Champions, one of the state’s top tournaments.

“The first time I was kind of panicked, just like, not again, but then it just goes away, so I’ve kind of learned that,” he said.

Morse lost by just one point to Coleman, as he did to Glencoe’s Tyler Self, perhaps the top Class 6A 182-pounder, in a Reser’s semifinal before rebounding for third place.

But the wins have been far more plentiful than the losses, though not many more of those even are left, with just two tournaments to go.

The NWOC district tourney begins today, and Morse and the rest of the Spartans will try to back up their conference duals championship on their home mat. Morse has spent time at 182, 195 and 220 pounds this season, and he could have gone as low as 170. But after much deliberation on where to put him, Morse will wrestle at 220 pounds.

Morse will need his toughness, resolve and tenacity over these next couple competitions, especially at state, where he will need to string together multiple strong performances over a short amount of time to keep his state title hopes alive.

Those qualities do seem to come to him innately, though, if a story his parents relayed serves as evidence. When Morse was just a few days old, Debbie had awoken from sleeping to find that her infant son was not breathing. She and Dave got him started breathing again and they rushed him to the hospital.

After the family arrived, medical staff were trying to insert an IV into Morse, poking at his little hand with a needle.

He did not cry.

“Not a peep from him,” his mom recalled.

“He just laid there,” Dave noted. “I’m like, ‘Oh, man. We’re going to have a tough one. All right.’”

Morse’s goal of winning a state title has not wavered. Back in December he said, “It’s really exciting to be able to do what I’m doing because so many people have said, ‘You shouldn’t be able to do this.’ And I’m just like, ‘Please keep saying that,’ because I love proving people wrong in that aspect.”

He might make some more believers in his last few matches — and, just maybe, he’ll finish the story the way he wants it to end.

Reese, for one, will be pulling hard for him.

“If it wasn’t Hunter Morse and you wouldn’t know what he was capable of, you would just assume that nothing’s wrong with him,” Reese said. “I just firmly believe — I don’t want to sound arrogant or anything like that — but I think he would have walked through the state on two good wheels.

“But that’s the nature of the sport, you know, sports. People get hurt. He’s just competing as hard as he can every time he sets out there, and you can’t ask for any more than that. And that’s why I’m so proud of him.”