UT baseball player Morgan Cooper on the first day of practice last year at UFCU Disch-Falk Field on Friday January 29, 2016. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Kirk Bohls

American-Statesman Staff

Column

Bohls: Texas’ Morgan Cooper hopes to ace this next challenge for Longhorns, himself

Posted February 10th, 2017

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Story highlights
  • Cooper has overcome Tommy John surgery and enters his redshirt junior year as the 38th best college prospect in the nation, according to Baseball America.
  • He may be country and ride a bull occasionally like his father, but he's dead serious on returning Longhorn baseball to national prominence.
  • New coach David Pierce likes his set of arms on this Texas staff, but calls Cooper his Friday night starter as the Longhorns open the season Friday against Rice.

Morgan Cooper remembers it like it was yesterday.

Well, he remembers some of it.

The first time David Pierce gathered his baseball team at Disch-Falk Field, Texas’ new head coach addressed the players and asked for something along the lines of name, rank and serial number. Basic info like a player’s name, his classification in school and one interesting fact about himself.

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Each stood up and shared. Some mentioned baseball achievements, others family members. One freshman said he’d spent the summer working as a deckhand on a deep sea fishing boat in Corpus Christi.

And what did Cooper share?

Pause.

Longer pause.

“I really can’t remember,” he said, shaking his head. “It must not have been that interesting.”

So we’ll fill in the gaps.

Texas pitcher Morgan Cooper.
Texas pitcher Morgan Cooper.

Cooper’s the pride of Jarrell, a city that’s known more for the devastating F5 tornado in May 1997 that killed 28 people in the small Central Texas town and caused $127 million in damage. “That’s the only reason people know about it,” he said.

Cooper’s pretty country. Who wouldn’t be after growing up on an 80-acre spread where his one-time bull-riding dad raises about 100 head of cattle and once rode bulls in college at Texas State. Cooper jokes, “You can barely walk around in boots around here without people giving you crap about being country. Or camo gear.”

At 22, Cooper’s older than most of his teammates. “I’m grandpa in the locker room,” he kids.

An avid hunter, he killed his first deer when he was 5 and has an 8-point buck mounted at his apartment.

There’s another thing fairly interesting about the tall right-handed pitcher.

He’s the Longhorns’ ace.

Or needs to be, if the proudest baseball program in the country, one that has produced the two all-time winningest coaches in the game in Pierce’s predecessor, Augie Garrido, and Cliff Gustafson, and more victories than any other major college by more than 600 wins, is to restore its reputation as an elite franchise. Several lackluster seasons have cost Texas richly. When the Longhorns don’t even qualify for the NCAA Tournament — and it hasn’t in three of the last five years — it registers.

And hurts.

“Oh, it hurts. It hurts all of us,” Cooper said. “You walk down the halls here and see all the greats who have played here, and it’s been embarrassing. Very embarrassing. We know we should be beating people left and right. I won’t lie. We’re very good on paper.”

Cooper’s used to things hurting.

He threw with pain for about two years in high school and in his freshman season with the Longhorns before frayed ligaments in his right elbow tore away, necessitating Tommy John surgery that cost him a full season and robbed him of any effectiveness and much of his confidence last year.

But what’s really compelling about Cooper’s story is that he’s fully healthy now. The 6-4, 211-pound redshirt junior doesn’t like to dwell on either his past or his team’s because, as he put it recently, “I’ll be firing on all cylinders. I can forget about what happened.”

Not all of it, of course.

Texas baseball player Morgan Cooper Answer questions from the local news media before preparing for his first practice of Texas' 2017 baseball season with their new head coach David Pierce at UFCU Disch-Falk Field on Friday, January 27, 2017. RICARDO B.BRAZZIELL/AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Texas baseball player Morgan Cooper Answer questions from the local news media before preparing for his first practice of Texas’ 2017 baseball season with their new head coach David Pierce at UFCU Disch-Falk Field on Friday, January 27, 2017. RICARDO B.BRAZZIELL/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

He started his college career with a strong 4-2 season with an impressive 2.89 ERA, but surgery followed and knocked him off track. He sat out a year, then muddled through a disappointing sophomore season when he didn’t totally trust his arm.

Now 42 career appearances later with only a 7-7 record to show for it, Cooper’s on the brink of a breakthrough season, one that should dispel any notions he’s no longer the power pitcher with the tremendous curve ball and a great upside. The curve was his go-to pitch, but a hard-biting slider should complete a repertoire that includes a fastball in the 92-94 mph range.

“Morgan’s our Friday night starter right now,” Pierce said. “We’ve got some very good guys on the mound. A guy like Morgan has great stuff.”

Stuff like the Clemenses and Kieschnicks, Swindells and Dressendorfers had.

Texas pitcher Morgan Cooper, shown in a file photo from 2014, got the start Tuesday night against Prairie View A&M.
Texas pitcher Morgan Cooper, shown in a file photo from 2014, got the start Tuesday night against Prairie View A&M.

He reminded Longhorns fans of that stuff in his final appearance last season when he threw his first career complete game in a run-rule shortened, seven-inning win over Baylor in the Big 12 Tournament. He struck out three and didn’t walk a batter. He’s ranked as the 38th top prospect among the top 100 college players by Baseball America after getting drafted in the 34th round by the Nationals last summer, so expectations are high.

“I just need to prove not necessarily that I belong here, but I feel last year was a very shallow showing of who I am and how I pitch,” Cooper said. “I know I am better than I showed. I’m good enough to be successful. When I pitch, I never doubt myself.”

Some may doubt the team since it’s struggled to regain the stature that has made Texas a six-time national champion. Shorter fences, a fresh approach, especially offensively and lots of arms could help that resurrection, and Cooper will play a large role.

“I don’t think we skipped a beat in the fall,” Cooper said. “We know we’re talented. Am I the ace of the staff? I have no idea. It’s something I’ve got to prove.”

And that will be interesting to follow.

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