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Tuesday, Mar 03, 2015

Size doesn't matter to Morolla

Hernando Today correspondent


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Perhaps the proverb 'Good things come in small packages' best sums up Hernando Today's Girls Soccer Player of the Year - Springstead senior forward Nicole Milanes Morolla.

Imagine a 62-inch tall, 98-pounder leading Hernando County booters in two of the three jewels associated with the scoring Triple Crown: assists (19) and points scored (73).

Morolla nearly swept the Triple Crown, losing out on goals scored to Nature Coast Technical senior midfielder Hailey Lalande, 28-27.

To comprehend what the pint-sized Morolla meant to the Lady Eagles' program, compare her to the Lady Sharks' captain Lalande.

Across the last four winters, Lalande has been one of NCT's offensive catalysts. In a fine prep career, Lalande tallied 52 goals and 30 assists for 134 total points.

In the 11-year history of the school, Lalande's 52 goals rank third all-time behind Emily Myers (53) and the school's record-holder Jaleesa Scott (74).

In assists, the adroit Lalande totaled a school-record 30, bypassing teammate Kendal Worden (26) and Myers (25).

Of the school's 65 players who have scored at least one point on the pitch, Lalande concluded her career second all-time to Scott's 167 points.

On the flip side, Morolla has basically served as the undercard at SHS.

Surrounded by talent, Morolla took a backseat to versatile scoring threats like former Players of the Year Alyson Brady, Ashley Walker, Samantha Betters, and All-County picks Cristina Passafaro, Tara Vasquez and Cally Quinn.

This year's Lady Eagle team began on the wrong foot with three key starters all on the bench due to season-ending anterior cruciate ligament knee injuries.

Without anyone else to lean on, the youngest of Vito and Gina Morolla's three daughters - "Baby Morolla" - took center stage and benefitted with assistance from senior Haleigh McDuff and junior Erin Blackwell.

Behind a personal-best season, the Spring Hill-born-and-raised resident quietly concluded her prep career among the Springstead elite.

In the 24-year history of the Mariner Boulevard program, the tiny Morolla managed to finish third in goals scored (63), fourth in assists (43) and third all-time in scoring (169) - behind aircraft carriers Jenny O' Sullivan and Angela Passafaro.

In doing so, Morolla not only out-totaled the outstanding efforts of Lalande, but edged out the career totals of the scoring machine Scott.

Though the injury-decimated SHS squad did not achieve the coveted regional playoffs, area coaches were so impressed with Morolla that she was voted to her third straight All-County team in addition to being feted as Player of the Year.

"Nicole is elusive, has breakaway speed, has the ability to read the field in a blink and provide scoring opportunities," summed up SHS' third-year mentor Scott Wern. "Since her freshman year, her confidence has skyrocketed.

"When we had additional scoring threats, like Sammy (Betters) last year, she complemented those type players. With all the injuries to our team, the other teams saw Nicole as a scoring threat. Whether she was marked by 1-2 players didn't matter, her numbers speak for herself."

"She's the type of player who never gives up. Forget her size, she's extremely aggressive," described Central's second-year skipper Ken Brening. "If the ball is in the box, she'll either take the shot of make sure someone with a better chance has a crack at it."

Perhaps former CHS head coach Amy Ellis portrayed Morolla the best.

"I love that kid; she's a great player and great choice (for POY). She's the type of player that goes hard every game," explained Ellis. "Forget her size, when she's in the (scoring) box she's looking to score or distribute - she's very dangerous. To me her best trait is she carries herself very well; she's not cocky at all."

Morolla received the POY announcement while cashiering at Publix.

"I was at work when I got the news. I honestly had no idea. I didn't expect this," she recalled. "I remember I started crying at my register.

"Honestly, I couldn't have done this by myself, I needed my entire team," she said. "Everyone on the team had my back."

? ? ?

The diminutive Morolla never allowed her lack of height to curb her ambitions.

At 5 she began her career on the pitch at either midfield or forward playing for the Hernando Heat. That union lasted 13 seasons.

Displaying her versatility in middle school, Morolla served as the point guard for the Challenger K-8 Lady Navigators as a sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grader under skipper Jeff Laing.

During the spring, she either played shortstop or pitched for three seasons for the Lady Navigators under Katie Day.

But once she matriculated to SHS, she concentrated solely on soccer.

"I enjoyed playing basketball, but soccer is something I loved to do since I followed my dad around to practice as a kid," noted Morolla. "Plus, soccer and basketball run during the same time in high school. I ran out of time to do both."

Morolla's catalogued her finest moments on the pitch.

"I'll never forget my first-ever goal in high school. It came in a preseason game during my freshman year," admitted the 18-year-old. "That was a great team with Alyson (Brady) and Kaitlyn (Duke) and so many others. I loved (head coach) Polo's (Furlong) team because those two were the perfect captains. On that team everyone got along.

"I can't remember who we played, but someone crossed the ball to me and I tucked in a goal," recalled Morolla. "For a moment I just stood thinking 'Oh God, I just scored a goal.' Then I remember Alyson coming up to me saying, 'Welcome to varsity.' In a matter of moments, I felt like I belonged."

Another unforgettable snapshot also occurred that season when SHS solved Plant City in a regional quarterfinal at Booster Stadium in a tense penalty kick shootout, 4-3.

"I remember the final Plant City player missing a PK and then everybody running on to the center of the field into a dog pile. I'll never forget it. I was so happy that it was over; I was hugging Brittani (Magrini) and everybody was crying.

"No one likes going to PKs, but I'll never forget that one," she added. "We wanted to win it so badly for the seniors."

Her final memorable moment occurred on Nov. 20, 2012 at Booster Stadium in a fracas against Lecanto, where three players were ejected for a rare fight on the field.

"There was stuff going on, so things were boiling," recalled Morolla. "When one of our girls got fouled again by the Lecanto girl, Haleigh (McDuff) had had enough and jumped in. She's the type of player who had everyone's back. That's what I loved about her. I remember I was trying to separate the fight and the look on the Lecanto girl's eyes were so intense."

In capsulizing her senior season, Morolla admitted that it was depressing opening the season without three starters (Betters, Alexis Cubillo and Alex Piesek) but she and McDuff were "going to do our hardest to make this our best-ever year. I knew right then I had to elevate my game to get the team going."

When Morolla describes her abilities on the pitch, she said, "I have a lot of speed and I know how to handle the ball and I always try my hardest. I feel I have the heart for the game and I don't want to disappoint people."

Morolla is at odds on whether to play soccer at the next level.

"I would love to play; all my friends play sports," she says. "Not that I don't think I can play, but I don't think I'll go pro after college. I feel like I need to work on the next chapter of my life. It's sad to say, but I may have played my last game of soccer."

Morolla, who carries a 3.3 unweighted and 3.6 weighted GPA, aspires to attend Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers.

If that doesn't happen, she'll attend Pasco-Hernando State College and eventually work toward a public relations or event management career.

Morolla took a moment for a card of thanks aimed at her parents "for being my biggest fans and biggest supporters," for Coach Furlong "for making me feel at ease," Coach (David) Hayes "for his understanding," and Coach Wern "for his guidance."

According to Morolla, she called McDuff her "glue."

"I wouldn't have done as well as I did without her in my corner," Morolla said. "We worked extremely well together. My only regret was seeing her on the bench (nursing a hamstring pull) instead of playing on Senior Night. That really hurt not seeing her on the field."

"A lot of people underestimated me because of my size," explained Morolla on her legacy at SHS. "I want to be remembered as a good teammate and a good captain. And sure, being remembered as the school's third-best scorer isn't a bad thing; I'm honored just to be included in that company."

By the numbers: Springstead's Nicole Morolla (2010-14)

- Compiled by TONY CASTRO


2010-11 3 3 9

2011-12# 11 10 32

2012-13# 22 11 55

2013-14#$ 27 19* 73*

TOTALS 63 43 169

* Denotes Hernando County leader.

# Denotes All-County selection.

$ Denotes Hernando Today Player of the Year.

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