Sal Mignano knows a baseball prospect when he sees one — especially a great one. The Shoreham-Wading River coach of 38 years knew Brian Morrell was a blue chip talent five years ago — when he was in the seventh grade.
“I watched him thoroughly during the seventh grade season and then in the fall of his eighth grade season,” said Mignano, who retired in 2015. “His ability was on another level and he played hard. I threw him right in at shortstop on our varsity.”
Morrell’s five-year high school baseball career blossomed from that eighth grade spring. The shortstop/pitcher grew from young prodigy to team leader and led the Wildcats to five straight playoff appearances, including the Suffolk Class A championship this season.
His impact was felt in every facet of the program. He set numerous school records, including total hits in a season with 44, career home runs (27) and career wins (29). He was a leader in the community and a role model for all the area Little League players, who waited after games for his autograph.
Brian Morrell is a small town star. He was the fourth junior to ever win the Yastrzemski Award given to Suffolk’s top player in 2016. For an encore, he became only the second player in the 50 years of the Yaz Award to win it twice.
Morrell batted .500 with seven home runs and 39 RBIs and recorded a 10-1 pitching record with 93 strikeouts in 67 1⁄3 innings this year. He was named the 50th recipient of the Yastrzemski Award Tuesday night at the Suffolk High School Baseball Coaches Association banquet at Villa Lombardi’s in Holbrook.
Only one Yaz recipient had ever won back-to-back awards. East Islip first baseman Ron Witmeyer, who had a short career with the Oakland A’s, won the award in 1984 and 1985.
“It’s definitely select company,” Morrell said. “It’s an extreme honor to be mentioned with the juniors that won the Yaz. And to be selected again is unbelievable. I can only hope to someday have those same opportunities as those great players before me. I want to follow in the footsteps of Marcus Stroman and be a great college student and then play professionally.”
The three juniors to win the award, Sachem’s Neal Heaton in 1978, Patchogue-Medford’s Stroman in 2008 and Witmeyer all played in the Major Leagues. Stroman, who earned the MVP of this year’s World Baseball Classic, is currently 7-2 with the Blue Jays.
Morrell still wants his shot at professional baseball but that may have to wait after the MLB draft went through the first 10 rounds and he didn’t have his name called.
“Isn’t that what every little boy that picks up a glove dreams about, playing pro ball?” Morrell said. “It’s very disappointing but I’ll use it as motivation for the future.”
He went on to credit his family, coaches and teammates for his incredible run. He also pointed to the winning tradition at Shoreham-Wading River and the mentoring of Mignano, the father of the Wildcats program.
“I’m surrounded by so many good people,” he said. “And our teams were so good. I just love playing the game and that helps in being successful — loving what you do.”
His mom, Toni-Jo Morrell, has been on an emotional roller coaster the past few weeks juggling the possibilities of the Major League amateur draft and his commitment to attend Notre Dame on a baseball scholarship.
“I can’t tell him enough how proud we are of him,” she said. “His dad and I know that we’re blessed with a son who has a laserlike focus on his goals and is a wonderful person. He’s sacrificed a lot of things over the years to be in the position of choosing between a professional career and college.”
Morrell’s drive to be the best could be found in his work ethic all year-round.
“I’ve had Brian since he was a young hitter and he’s always been a super athlete,” said Joe Francisco of the Hitting Academy at the Prospects Factory in Farmingdale. “He’s a dynamic hitter, super explosive fast hands and he made small adjustments over the years and kept improving.”
Shoreham-Wading River coach Kevin Willi, who coached Morrell for the past three years, said, “He was under a lot of pressure this year and he dealt with it pretty well. It was impressive how he steadily improved his statistics from year to year. He never stopped working to improve.”
Mignano looks back on a talented seventh-grader and knows he made the right call.
“It was a no no-brainer for me because he was the best shortstop in the whole program as a 14-year old,” said Mignano, who led the Wildcats to eight Suffolk titles and 32 straight playoff appearances. “He was coming into a winning program, a perennial playoff contender. And he was a perfect fit.”