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Taking Advantage: Jd Whetsel and Dan Morris Building Strong Careers Capitalizing on Opportunity

Taking advantage of opportunities is extremely important in sports because they don’t occur very often. Athletes are rarely presented with open doors, but when these situations arise, players must cash in. These occasions can make or break a career.

For JD Whetsel, the chance to shine occurred in 2013. Whetsel rose to success after stepping into the very large shoes of Brian Billigen ’12, who concluded a terrific career as one of the greatest offensive players to step foot on Hoy Field. Billigen carried the Big Red to an Ivy League title and NCAA postseason berth, while leaving the program ranked second in total bases, tied for third in home runs, tied for third in triples, fourth in slugging percentage, sixth in batting average, sixth in stolen bases, sixth in hits, and seventh in RBIs.

After struggling his rookie season, Whetsel received a chance to fill a gaping hole in the team’s outfield caused by Billigen’s departure. Although he never expected to completely replace Billigen, Whetsel felt like he needed to prove something.

“My freshman year was probably the worst stretch of baseball I’ve played,” recalled Whetsel, “I definitely felt some pressure after Billigen left, but the fact that coach [Walkenbach] trusted me by putting me in that position after the year that I had (it) showed that he had a lot of faith in me out there.”

Whetsel came out on fire and played with a chip on his shoulder. He started all 40 games and led the team in nearly every offensive category, while also remaining a force on defense by utilizing his speed to cover the outfield gaps. “It was nice to get out to a hot start and just show the guys that I could play,” said Whetsel.

He didn’t cool down the following year, as Whetsel finished first in runs scored, doubles, and walks, led the squad with four three-hit games, recorded the fourth-highest stolen base total in Cornell history, and committed just one error in 39 games.

Unfortunately, the Big Red received bad news this winter when the team discovered Whetsel would require surgery on his wrist due to a dislocated extensor carpi ulnaris tendon. The ECU is a ligament that runs along the outside of the wrist, and the injury is truly wear-and-tear, which takes about nine weeks to heal, placing him at an estimated time of return around the beginning of Ivy League action.

With the door on Whetsel closed shut, at least for the time being, senior Dan Morris stared into a wide open one, thus being given a similar opportunity as Whetsel received only a few seasons ago.

He arrived at Cornell as a transfer sophomore from Villanova and walked on to the team in the fall before the 2013 season, just as he had done at ‘Nova. Being forced to sit out one year in complying with NCAA rules, Morris hit the weight room and focused his attention on becoming stronger.

“It was kind of tough having to watch the guys every game and not being able to do anything,” stated Morris. “It was nice to be a part of the group, though, and I just prepared for when I was able to play.”

With the whole team devastated after Whetsel went down, coach Walkenbach looked to Morris, who had previously entered only four games as a pinch runner throughout his Big Red career. “I was excited. I felt a little pressure knowing that this was my time, but I’ve enjoyed it, and I’ve been doing well so far” remarked Morris.

Doing well may be an understatement, as the senior has risen to the occasion and currently leads the team in almost all offensive categories, except for home runs and RBIs. At a time when the lineup hasn’t been as successful as most people might have hoped, he seems to have temporarily filled the shoes of Whetsel.

While everything appears to be clicking on all cylinders for Morris, he said, “I’ve been trying to go into each at bat looking for my pitch early on to stay out of some disadvantaged counts. I’m just trying to put some good swings on balls.”

During his reign, and even after Whetsel took over the centerfielder position, Billigen offered support to the eventual team MVP, making him feel more comfortable. Whetsel said the two are close, which made for an easy transition.

Whetsel attempted to give similar encouragement, as he essentially informed Morris, “You’re going to be fine because you’re a good enough athlete.” There were only a couple of weeks to prepare until Morris was inserted into the opening day lineup, so it was unnecessary to worry about his mechanics. Whetsel told Morris to mainly rely on his baseball instincts and athleticism because, with such little time to get ready, he could become frustrated in trying to learn the minute details of the position.

Entering the spring, Morris had never really played in the outfield, so there needed to be a period of learning and adjustment. He mentioned, “I was trying not to get too mental or technical with it and just go out there and play the game.” Morris was able to simplify his role and broke it down into purely concentrating on tracking down balls and hitting the cutoff guys on throws.

Morris believes he has been able to flourish due to preparation and the very reason that kept him on the sidelines. While sitting out one season, Morris not only improved physically, but also gained knowledge from the older guys on the team and worked hard on fine-tuning his game.

Whetsel considers his success to result from similar learning experiences in his rookie year, but credits many of his accomplishments to changing his swing and transforming into a better hitter.

“I was more concerned with getting on base than really going out there hunting for my pitch and driving the ball,” stated Whetsel. He altered his approach and became more patient at the plate, which helped in adapting to the Ivy League style since hitters continually see more breaking balls and off-speed pitches.

Cornell’s defense and pitching has been able to keep the team in games thus far. Still, even with Morris’ excellent play, the squad must improve offensively. Hitters need to start swinging more aggressively, especially in situations where the Big Red has opportunities on which to capitalize with runners in scoring position. The team knows it can count on its defense, yet if the offense can acquire an attacking mentality and have some big innings by putting more runs on the board early, Cornell should be in good shape.

Whetsel is nearing a return, as he already began strength training and rehabbing in his upper body, whereas he previously focused on more exercises directed at his legs and core. Whetsel estimates only about two more weeks until he is able to return to the field, but he’s been itching to get back at it.

“Sitting out has been brutal, especially the first couple of weekends when our hitters have struggled. It makes it a lot tougher to be on the bench watching,” said Whetsel. “I’ve wanted to speed up the process so bad because it’s hard going at the therapists’ pace since you get the impression that they don’t understand. Trust in the process has been the toughest part.”

Whetsel’s extended time on the bench resulted in two things: it has given him a different perspective in appreciating his time on the field, and it allowed the Big Red to discover an additional diamond in the rough in Morris. Once Whetsel returns to full strength, the lineup has the potential to be potent offensively due to the combination of two great bats.

In both cases, each player has effectively taken advantage of the opportunities with which he was presented. For JD Whetsel, his situation launched an unforeseen successful Big Red baseball career. In the case of Dan Morris, the future looks bright for the creation of another underrated star.

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