A rarity in college sports programs: A dual-sport athlete
Morgan Bertsch is the UC Davis women’s basketball team’s main offensive weapon on the court and one of the top high jumpers on the outdoor track and field team. As a redshirt sophomore forward on the women’s basketball team, Bertsch recently completed a historic 2016-2017 season for the UC Davis women’s basketball team that culminated in All-Big West First Team Honors and a run to the Sweet Sixteen in the Women’s National Invitation Tournament (WNIT). That would mark the beginning of the offseason for most UC Davis athletes, but for Bertsch, as one season comes to a close, another starts to take form.
While most of her teammates are allowed a well-deserved rest, Bertsch spends her Spring Quarter competing in the high jump for the UC Davis track and field team. After this interview was conducted, Bertsch set a new UC Davis high jump record of 5 feet 10 inches (1.78 meters) in the Brutus Hamilton Challenge at the UC Berkeley this past weekend. The California Aggie had the opportunity to sit down with Bertsch to ask her about both her basketball and track and field careers.
How long have you been playing basketball and what drew you to the game?
I actually started playing basketball when I was about 5. The main reason I started was because my older sister started playing when she was about 9 and I wanted to be like her, so I played basketball. When you first start playing basketball, you don’t really know how it works — you’re out there traveling, picking up the ball and just going for it. It’s always been a really fun sport for me and I really enjoy the whole team atmosphere, it’s like a family and just having your teammates there with you all the time while you’re competing is truly special. I just really love the game of basketball and just the whole aspect of being with your family out there competing.
You’re a forward on the team — has that been the case for your whole basketball career?
Yeah, I’ve always been really tall. Probably a little undersized in the weight department. But yeah, I’ve always been really tall and played the four and the five on the basketball court. That’s just where I’m the most comfortable, down in the blocks, where I can do layups and not have to shoot or dribble much.
You enjoyed a very successful career at Santa Rosa High School. What’s your favorite memory from high school basketball?
Just my entire senior season was pretty impressive. As a team aspect, we went farther than any other [Santa Rosa High School] team had ever gone and we won our conference too. That was special, just knowing that we were the best team my school had ever had was really special for us. The kind of bond that we had as a team was really close, one of the closer teams I’ve been on at that high school.
How did you ultimately decide on UC Davis as the place for your collegiate basketball career?
I didn’t get recruited by anyone for basketball. I mean, there were a couple Division II’s that said that if I came to their school I could be on the basketball team. I was trying to decide between track and basketball and which one I wanted to pursue. I emailed some coaches about doing high jump at some schools, and I had contacted [associate track and field head coach] Marshall [Ackley] here for the high jump and he was like, “Yeah let’s get you out on an official visit.” And I was like “actually, I’m coming on an official visit in three days for basketball!” Then the basketball head coach Jenn [Gross] called me and said “hey, I heard you’re talking to the track coach. I’ll have him come to a meeting and we can all chat together about the possibility of doing both or what your options would be.” It was really kind of unique, the approach that both coaches had to it — we both want her so we should work together. [UC Davis] was the only Division I recruiting me, so I came on a visit and they offered me a full ride scholarship which was huge. I didn’t even expect that coming out of it, I didn’t even know that was a possibility for me. It was perfect in every aspect, I had the possibility of doing track if I really wanted to, but it was a casual “if you want to you can,” [and they] weren’t pressuring me to do it. It was the perfect choice!
Both your sister and your mom played college basketball. Can you talk about what basketball means to your family?
Growing up, it was huge. My grandpa also played basketball, he was a three-sport athlete in college. Basketball has always been a huge part of our family, at one point [me and my sisters were all playing] in high school. [My parents and grandparents] would come to the JV games for me and then go to the varsity games for my two sisters. Growing up, my grandpa was huge on just making sure that you love [the game] when you play it, and that’s the only reason that you’re playing it is because you love it that much. He was really keen on making sure I knew how to use my left hand. He’s taught me a lot when it comes to basketball and that’s something that’s always stuck with me is making sure you know how to use your left hand.
You had a breakout year as a redshirt freshman and followed that with another big year this past season. How have you been able to consistently play at such a high level?
I think the redshirt year was just a huge help for me personally. Coming in, I had a good senior season, but before that I wasn’t really a Division I basketball player. Having that extra year really helped, getting in the weight room three times a week [rather than] the usual two during season, I was [also] on the scout team a lot. [The scout team] was a lot of do your own thing [and] experiment. This person likes to [practice] righty hooks? Alright, today I’m going to be someone who does righty hooks. This person [practices] pull up jumpers? Alright, I guess today I’m doing pull up jumpers. [It became] a way for me to branch out and play against people who were good defenders.
The women’s basketball team recently finished a historic season. What was it like to not only compete in the WNIT but to also make it to the Sweet 16?
It was really important for our team. It was disappointing, [because] our whole year we had our hearts and our minds set on going to the NCAA tournament and especially with the successful [regular] season that we had, we were really confident in ourselves and we knew that we could do it. When we lost that game [against UC Santa Barbara in the Big West Conference Semifinals], we felt a little lost. [It was] something that we’d had our hearts set on since August, or even since the Big West tournament last year. It just got shattered. But the kind of team that we are, we’re all competitors, we want to go out each and every day and win as many games as we can. [When the NIT started] against Utah it was a challenge for us to get our head rights again. “This is our new goal, our new goal is to go as far as we can in the NIT.” It was resetting our goals and refinding the team that we were before that loss. Coming out with the bang we had in that game, I think we went on a 10-0 run, we came out ready to prove we could still do something, even though it wasn’t in the NCAA tournament.
You were named to the 2016-2017 All Big West first team in basketball. How does it feel to get recognized?
Obviously it feels really nice, but when you get those kind of awards you can’t forget the people who got you there. Yes, I did get that award, but honestly without my teammates there’s no way I could do half the stuff that I do. It’s a nice personal thing, but it’s also a team thing.
How do you feel about UC Davis’s 2017-2018 basketball prospects given the success of this past season?
A repeat for the regular season [Big West conference championship] would be awesome and I think that’s totally possible. We’re only losing one senior this year, and we’re gaining three really good freshman. Hopefully they can come on and be instant contributors. We’re the same team — a lot of the teams in our conference have lost people. If we [won the Big West conference championship] last year, than we can do it this year. Obviously, we really want to win the Big West tournament, that’s the one that matters the most because it gets you to the [NCAA] tournament. Being able to do both is really tough, no one has gotten the regular season and conference tournament championship in a while. That’s a huge goal for us and then we can go on to the NCAA tournament and prove ourselves there.
What is it like to be a two sport D-I athlete?
It’s not as horrible as it could be without the coaches being so understanding of each other. They try and make it as easy as they can on me. [For] track my coach only makes me come out here twice a week for an hour and a half, he could be like “I want you out here every day doing your conditioning” but he knows that I am getting conditioning from basketball too. I lift with basketball, [participate in] basketball workouts twice a week and do some open gyms with them. The only track requirement I have is an hour and a half jumping twice a week and then competitions on the weekend. It is a lot of time, but it’s not even as much as I would have for basketball in the winter. It makes it a lot longer throughout the year with always having something but it’s definitely worth it in the long run. Just being able to come out here and get to jumping, something I don’t get to do all that often. It’s just fun to mix it up a little bit.
Is there any overlap for you between the two sports?
The jumping aspect from basketball carries over in high jump, probably not as much for me just because I don’t jump up as much as the normal person. But I definitely see some correlation in your pop and the quick foot speed that you get from doing track and having the quick high claw when you run, it makes the acceleration on the basketball court [more noticeable]. There’s a little bit of overlap that helps from one to the other, it’s a good pairing.
What are your goals for this season in track and field?
I really want to make 5’09” and plus some. In high school my personal best my was 5’09” and I made it to the state meet with that. But I haven’t been able to get it since. I had an attempt at 5’09” and ¾’s last meet, which would have been a school record, a personal best and I also would have qualified for the NCAA regional meet. I’ve been here for two years and I’ve jumped pretty consistently at 5’07” and you need 5’09” to [qualify] for regionals, so thats a huge goal of mine is to hit that 5’09” and be able to go complete in those preliminaries.
What are you plans after graduating?
I plan on playing overseas for a couple years. I don’t really have any plans after that. Right now I’m doing [biomedical] engineering, so hopefully I’ll get a job, get some internships. It’s hard to get internships when I’m on the basketball team and doing track, there’s not much time off.
Written by: Rowan O’Connell-Gates — firstname.lastname@example.org