Rachel Morris always seems to have a smile on her face before and after basketball games.
But when the ball is thrown up, the happy-go-lucky senior from Virgin Valley becomes an intimidator. The 6-foot-4-inch center has gradually grown into that role as she has muscled her way into the state record book.
"Last year she got pushed around a little bit, but this year she's doing the pushing around," Bulldogs coach Chimane Creer said. "She scares people from coming in the middle because they have to alter what they do, and she blocks a lot of shots."
So many, in fact, that Morris held Nevada's all-time blocked shots record as a junior.
She has blocked 562 shots in her four-year varsity career heading into tonight's Class 3A Southern League game at Boulder City. While it's thought to be incomplete, the Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association record book lists no one else above 500.
Morris, who signed with Utah in November, has noticed opposing players become hesitant to drive the lane while she is towering underneath the basket.
"They've gotten smarter. They used to drive a lot, but they don't drive as much," she said. "Our guards don't often get beat, but if they do, I've got their backs."
Morris is the central reason the Bulldogs (14-4, 1-0 3A Southern) think they can win their first state title since 1993. Virgin Valley reached the 3A state tournament last year, only to lose 60-36 to Lowry in the semifinals.
Creer said the Bulldogs are driven not only to bury the memory of last season's postseason ouster but to build the team's reputation up to the level of some of the school's other programs. Virgin Valley has won three straight 3A state baseball titles.
"They've looked up recently at all the baseball (banners) that keep going up year after year," Creer said. "They know that they have the potential to do it, but we have to make sure that when the opportunity presents itself, we're ready."
While shot blocking always has been Morris' biggest strength, she has developed a well-rounded game over the years to become the face of the program.
Morris leads Virgin Valley this season with averages of 14.3 points, 11.9 rebounds, 4.9 blocks and 1.5 steals.
"I've seen Rachel in the gym since she was about 5 years old," Creer said. "I've seen her develop over the years. Watching her from when I first started coaching to now, she's come into her own."
Virgin Valley returned all five starters from last season, including standout forward Jenelle Weythman and guard Madison Bowler. It has led to a memorable year that includes a 10-1 record against Class 4A schools.
But it's not the memory the Bulldogs are seeking. Morris said the experienced group has what it takes to achieve state glory for the first time since some of her teammates were even born.
"This season, it's my last year. We're trying to go out with a bang," Morris said. "Girls basketball (in Mesquite) here people have kind of taken lightly. If we were able to show them how much we've been working, that would be the greatest thing."
Contact reporter Tristan Aird at email@example.com or 702-387-5203.