Bike rides and street tag — that’s what you do with your friends when you are 12 years old. Hailey Morrow and her neighborhood pals were no different — with one exception. As Hailey peddled around Centennial Hills in Las Vegas, the preteen already knew where she was going to college.

BYU’s Gordon Eakin offered her a scholarship to play Division I softball and she accepted — when she was 12 years old.

“I was so excited to come to BYU that the hardest thing was waiting all those years of high school to get here. I wanted to get to BYU and start my journey. It was pretty tough to be patient.” — BYU softball catcher Hailey Morrow

“After I received the offer, I remember feeling very grateful for the opportunity,” Morrow told the Deseret News. “I don’t think a lot of my friends even knew what it meant.”

How could they? They were all still trying to navigate through the eighth grade.

“That’s when the arms race was on to commit kids early,” Eakin said. “Hailey was an LDS kid that came to our camps. Her athleticism intrigued us.”

There was just one big problem. The wait. Morrow was still attending the Somerset Academy Sky Point charter school and starting her career at Shadow Ridge High was still months away.

“I was so excited to come to BYU that the hardest thing was waiting all those years of high school to get here,” Morrow said. “I wanted to get to BYU and start my journey. It was pretty tough to be patient.”

Eakin had offered young players before. Some made it to BYU, some didn’t. Morrow is the last of the younglings as NCAA rules now prohibit contact between schools and kids before their junior year of high school.

“BYU has been my dream school since I was little,” Morrow said. “(Even at 12 years old) I knew it was the right place for me.”

What she wouldn’t know about for the next 6 ½ years was the surprise that was waiting upon her arrival.

The curveball

The drive from Las Vegas to Provo is typically six hours, depending on who is behind the wheel. Morrow wrapped up the Christmas break in Southern Nevada and was on the road to her BYU debut when the phone rang.

It was coach Eakin.

“We were doing our January softball camp in the IPF (Indoor Practice Facility),” Eakin said. “We asked her when she was getting here and asked if she could drop by the IPF as soon as she got in town.”

Morrow arrived a few hours later and was surrounded by the staff.

“They asked how the Christmas break went and they were like, ‘So, how are you doing?’ I’m like, ‘I’m good,’” she said. “But I could tell something was up.”

What was up was the fact that so many catchers were down — with injuries.

The chain reaction started when sophomore Natalie Sicairos suddenly retired due to back issues before the 2022 season. Macy Simmons stepped in and started all 50 games last year as a junior. As Simmons prepared for her senior season, she too developed a back problem and had season-ending surgery in December.

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Sophomore Angelina Camen was brought in from the transfer portal to back up Simmons, but it was discovered after her arrival that the labrum surgery she had at her previous school didn’t heal right and had to be redone — costing her the season.

“This is unprecedented for us,” said Eakin, who has 779 career victories. “It forced us to figure something out.”

What they figured was going to require Morrow to do something she had never done before.

BYU Cougars catcher Hailey Morrow catches during a game with Boise State in Provo on Tuesday, March 21, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The big idea

There is no way BYU football coach Kalani Sitake would ask tight end Isaac Rex to move over to starting quarterback four weeks before the season opener unless he was out of options. What Eakin was about to do was the equivalent of such a move.

“We have something to talk to you about,” Eakin said as the IPF conversation continued. “We dropped the bomb that Macy was out, and we thought we could shore things up behind the plate if she would switch positions.”

Morrow is a middle infielder. That’s all she has known since picking up her first softball. Not one time had she ever played catcher — or even considered it.

“I could see a little ‘Oh my heck!’ in her eyes,” Eakin said. “And maybe a little fear and a little wonder.”

It took only a few seconds for the new kid in town to say yes.

“Besides being nervous, I think I’m a very competitive person. I’ll do whatever it takes. I want to win and be there for my teammates,” Morrow said. “It was an easy decision when I thought about the big picture and what the team needed.”

The moment Morrow agreed to the switch, the clock started ticking.

“Coach Todd (Judge) told me I had 30 days to become a catcher,” she said. “I knew it was going to be a hard 30 days.”

On the clock

Life behind the plate is a different life. A hard life. It requires complete focus on every single pitch and the athleticism to block balls in the dirt, throw out baserunners, defend the plate when opposing runners try to score, and, maybe the most challenging of all, is the part-time work as a pitcher’s psychiatrist.

Eakin believed Morrow was made for this moment. He saw it in her, even at 12 years old.

“The same exact thing that prompted us to recruit her in the eighth grade was her athleticism,” Eakin said. “She’s just a tremendous athlete. When you are gonna try to do something she hasn’t done before, it’s the athleticism that makes it possible.”

Morrow’s transition began by putting on a catcher’s mask, which opened her eyes to a whole new world.

“We started with the basics so I could get a good foundation,” Morrow said. “We added something new every day.”

After pitch and catch sessions in the bullpen, she moved behind home plate.

“She had to learn how to frame pitches, but the biggest challenge was learning how to block pitches in the dirt,” Eakin said. “After a couple weeks, we started putting batters in front of her and have them swing when she was trying to catch and block pitches.”

Much to Eakin’s delight, Morrow was progressing quickly, but even as a true freshman, she was old enough to know there was still a major hill to climb — she had to convince the pitchers that she could do the job — with the season opener fast approaching.

Making her pitch

Chloe Temples set BYU’s single-game strikeout record last year when she fanned 15 Saint Mary’s batters. The bond between her and catcher Macy Simmons appeared unbreakable. But as the transfer from Stetson prepared for her senior season, she watched the veteran catcher go down and a converted second baseman move in to replace her.

“When I first heard the news, I was definitely worried,” Temples said. “It was nothing against Hailey, but it scared me a little bit. When you are comfortable on the mound to throw any of your pitches, it changes the game for me. Last year, me and Macy were on the same page.”

Morrow had little time to waste once the announcement was made. Even as a new catcher, she had a pitch to, well, pitch — to the pitchers.

“I thought they were worried,” she said of Temples and freshman pitcher Kaysen Korth. “The bond between a pitcher and catcher is so important. Someone who hasn’t caught before might not understand that.”

The next day, as the team worked on conditioning in the weight room, the freshman saw an opportunity to make a senior-like move.

“I remember going up to Chloe and I put my hand on her shoulder and said, ‘Chloe, I got you and we got this,’” Morrow said. “We are going to work some magic.”

“I can tell that we are starting to get there,” Temples said. “We are open and honest. Hailey will come up to me and ask, ‘What do you think about this?’ or ‘What am I doing on this pitch that you want done better?’ I can tell she genuinely believes in me.”

Like Morrow, Korth is in her first season at BYU. The promising former Max Preps Utah Player of the Year from Riverton High also had an initial speed bump to clear.  

“I was nervous, especially having someone who hadn’t caught before. But she is crazy good,” Korth said. “I would have never expected her to pick up everything so well. She frames like she has been a catcher for 10 years. She is ahead of the game. She is looking at every pitch. She knows what’s working for me. And, to throw out Division I runners stealing from first base to second — is unreal.”

To make things even more interesting and borderline desperate, freshman catcher Jolee Benson joined the injury list with a fractured elbow. It was now obvious, for the Cougars’ chances at a final WCC championship, the ‘Morrow Experiment’ had to work. 

No pressure. Right?

The catching debut

The Morrow family likes to joke around, and when Hailey told her parents, Jon and Heather, that she switched from second base to catcher, they didn’t believe her. So, when the family flew to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, to watch the Cougars take on Wisconsin on Feb. 9, they were in for a surprise.

“When they saw me run out of the dugout and get behind home plate they had the biggest smiles on their faces,” Morrow said. “They thought I had been joking the whole time.”

It was no joke, and it didn’t take but the first batter to convince Korth that Morrow was the right second baseman for the job.

“The very first batter,” Korth said. “She blocked a ball, and I knew there was nothing I had to worry about.”

For Morrow, it took a few more pitches.

“When Kaysen got that first strikeout, I could just feel the energy,” she said. “I knew we were going to be fine. My mindset going in was to play without fear and play the game how it is supposed to be played and the rest would take care of itself.”

Korth and Morrow teamed up for a three-hit shutout including nine strikeouts in a 1-0 victory.

“As I walked back to the hotel, I just took a deep breath and thought, ‘We can do this! We can win. We are a solid team,’” Morrow said. “At that moment I was just excited for what the season would bring.”

Morrow is now 21 games into her first season as a D-I catcher, and of the 20 games she has played she has started every one of them. She is also hitting the ball. Her .378 average is best on the team. Morrow also has four home runs; her first against Portland State will never be forgotten.

“That was probably one of the best feelings in my life. I knew as soon as I hit it that it was gone,” she said. “My favorite part was watching it on film and seeing my teammates jumping up and down. They are my biggest supporters.”

A glimpse into the future?

While Morrow was riding her bike around Centennial Hills as a 12-year-old with a scholarship offer in her back pocket, Eakin was busy coaching the 2017 Cougars to 46 wins and an appearance in the NCAA Tournament.

Now at 19, Morrow is finally on the roster, but she’s doing something the coach had never done in his 22 previous years at BYU — turn an infielder into a starting catcher.

“I’ve seen it one time in my career when Arizona did it. That’s what gave us the idea that it could be done,” Eakin said. “Hailey is a rare athlete. What she has done is phenomenal, exceptional and uncommon in this game.”

Next year as BYU begins play in the Big 12, Eakin expects to have Simmons, Camen and returned missionary Kaylee Erickson competing for time behind the plate, which may send Morrow back home to second base.

“Hailey could start behind the plate, at third base, shortstop or second base,” Eakin said. “We’ll see what happens next year. Her total game is pretty darn impressive.”

What about pitcher?

“She’s never pitched, and she won’t,” he said with a laugh.

On second thought …

BYU players huddle prior to a game with Boise State in Provo on Tuesday, March 21, 2023.
BYU catcher Hailey Morrow (20) and her teammates huddle prior to a game with Boise State in Provo on Tuesday, March 21, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “BYU Sports Nation Game Day,” “The Post Game Show,” “After Further Review,” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv. He is also co-host of “Y’s Guys” at ysguys.com.