Joe Morrell, West Haven High School’s latest Athletic Director, is a familiar face around the sports venues of the city, and has been all his life. In fact, Morrell is the quintessential “local boy makes good” story, with the “making good” part being in his hometown.
“I grew up in West Haven where I played many youth sports in town through the years. During my high school years, I played three sports: soccer, I was coached by Elliott Marnell, hockey- Art Crouse and baseball, George Hanchette,” he said. “All three of those coaches and former Athletic Director Tom Hunt have played a huge roll in my life. During my senior year, I was fortunate enough to be elected captain on all three teams my senior year.”
What Morrell didn’t say in his usual soft-spoken way was his leadership qualities were picked up by the coaches, and those qualities demanded he be captain.
Upon graduation from college, and marriage to his high school sweetheart, Jackie Violano Morrell, the couple stayed in their hometown and made a life for themselves. Jackie worked in the city school system as a clerk/secretary, while her husband was able to get hired as a physical education instructor.
After that is was a series of coaching jobs, both in youth sports and later high school assistant jobs, and then taking over the reins of the Blue Devils’ hockey program, something he aspired to accomplishing.
Longtime Athletic Director Jon Capone had planned on retirement, and it was always a known secret Morrell – who had since become the school’s softball coach as well, would be the heir-apparent. What was needed was the state certification and administrative degrees the job required, and Morrell left his hockey job in order to pursue those requirements.
He took over the job in March – just before something called COVID-19 hit pandemic stage. Within days of taking over, the world turned upside down.
“I took the job over in March. and two weeks later I got COVID, which made things very difficult,” he said. “Many people have been helpful in my transition to AD — Superintendent of School, Neil Cavallaro, Assistant Superintendent Dr. Anne Druzolowski, Principal Dana Paredes, former AD Jon Capone, Supervisor of Facilities Chris Everone, PE coordinator Mike Anquillare, (Southern Connecticut Conference Chairman) Al Carbone and all SCC ADs, as we all the coaches, and a special appreciation to my secretary Mary-Lou Limauro for all her support.”
Despite the setbacks and the reality of a pandemic, Morrell has set up some short-term goals in his new role.
“My short-term goal at this point, obviously, I would keep improving the program which is already an outstanding program and to bring more technology into the athletic program. We have implemented a few changes, such as the way the athletes submit athletic forms and physicals, it is all done online now, he said. “Also the athletic trainer, Megan Taylor, and I, have revised the emergency action plan.”
Long term, Morrell wants more kids taking part in Blue Devils athletics.
“As for long term goals; I would like to get more students participating in high school sports. We currently have a brand new facility which is state of the art. I believe these facilities give our students opportunities they may not have had in the past,” he said.
The year 2020, however, has been the year of coronavirus, and that has played a role in how Morrell has adapted into the job, and has overridden many of the obligations.
“COVID has definitely played a huge part of this job. I haven’t experienced what the job really is because of it. It seems like everything I do has a COVID piece to it, from fan policies to equipment sign off sheets,” he said.
He said the pandemic has expanded his horizons in ways he never thought possible.
“I never knew what the word ‘Zoom’ was and now it seems I am on Zoom every other day, with league administrators, school administrators, coaches, parent and students,” he said.
The athletic director has his new responsibilities, but COVID has played a role in how his coaching staff operate as well.
“Everything that the coaches do there is a COVID piece: monitoring their health, wiping the equipment down, wearing masks, and documenting everything. I am sure in the future some of this stuff are not going to go away,” Morrell said.
And, the pandemic has added a new responsibility has far as what the coaches have to know over and above state coaching certification requirements.
“Probably the biggest part of my job is making sure the coaches are up to date on the latest COVID recommendations as well as their certifications,” he said. “Another part of my job is that I am in charge of the Bennett Rink scheduling which has been very difficult this year due to COVID.
But there are some responsibilities Morrell looks forward to after all other tasks.
“I also teach one phy Ed class which is something I really look forward to each time. I also will continue to coach softball,” Morrell said.
There are some voices around the state and elsewhere who are saying the role of high schools in youth sports might be reset after the pandemic. Indeed, those sponsoring programs in various sports under many banners say theirs is the way of the future. Morrell isn’t quite so sure.
“I believe high school athletics will be stronger than ever when this pandemic is finally over. I think students miss it so much and can’t wait to get back and to play for their school and play in front of the fans,” he said. “ When I played and coached at West Haven, there was no better feeling than stepping onto the ice with a packed house at the Bennett Rink. High school sports across the country gives students an opportunity to be part of something more than just the team, gives them a chance to becomes part of the community.”
With the New Year beckoning, the winter sports season has been moved due to the rise in COVID cases, and the possibility of a March football season and even spring sports has some doubt surrounding it. Morrell is hoping for the best.
“At this point all we know is that there is a possible starting date of Jan. 19. I am sure we will be getting more information as that gets closer. As far as football in March, as of right now it is still as planned. As far as spring sports go they are trying to get a full season in the start time may have to be adjusted,” he said.
His new role won’t change Morrell’s love for Blue Devils athletics, its teams and its players.
“As a coach of a team you are responsible for just your players. As an AD I now feel responsible for coaches and players on every team in WHHS, he said. “I will be part of every agonizing defeat and part of the thrill of every victory.”
In looking back over the past year leading up to his taking over, Morrell did what he’s always done, made sure the family was on board.
“Becoming the AD was certainly a family decision. My wife Jackie has definitely supported me in all athletic endeavors. Also my daughters, Jocey and Jolie, who both played sports at West Haven High where they got a tremendous educational experience and have both gone on to play softball at very good schools, they both have also been a huge part of my career in coaching and now as the AD,” he said.
Morrell’s new position as athletic director is in its beginning phase, and it has been hampered by issues beyond his control. But there is a sense that the man who lead three sports, and is a successful coach and family man, has the stuff necessary for success at WHHS.