Here’s one woman’s vote to specializing in one sport, rather than being a multi-sport athlete.
A former three-sport student-athlete at Rio Rancho High School is now playing soccer professionally in Italy, but Imani Morlock, Class of 2015 at RRHS, says she could be an even better futbol player if she’d limited her time on the court in the winter and on the track in the spring.
“I started playing club soccer at 11 years old. Before soccer I loved track and basketball.
“I loved all four years on varsity at RRHS,” she recalled. “The soccer team was exceptionally accepting from the beginning. I wish I focused on soccer more in high school, but I loved playing basketball and running track as well.”
“Imani was a player who I considered a quick learner with outstanding athletic abilities,” said Rams soccer coach Uwe Balzis. “We played her in several different positions on the field and she adjusted quickly. I also enjoyed working with her because she was always ready to come out and practice or play.”
Morlock also played different positions in college: She was a three-time All-Lone Star Conference first-teamer at defender, than a second-teamer at midfielder as a senior.
As a Ram she was a standout on the basketball court, earning all-district and all-state honors as a three-year letter winner for coach Patrick Puentes.
She followed her sports days at RRHS with four great seasons at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, Texas.
She’s the daughter of Frank and Pearl Morlock, whose son Frankie had starred at running back for the Rams (2009-11) and graduated in 2012.
“Sharing the same stadium as my brother was an honor and I’m glad I had someone to look up to in high school.”
Her high school days, which included four state-playoff appearances for her Rams soccer teams, are great memories now. She accounted for 20 goals and 10 assists over her last three prep seasons, and also competed at the club level for coaches Mike Erwin and Pancho Macias of the New Mexico Rush.
“RRHS was a great school for me,” she said. “I respected all of my coaches and each one of them helped me become the player and person I am now. I made friendships I still have today. Academically I could have done better but I guess at the time I took school for granted.
“My junior and senior years, I started to improve my game in a more tactical manner. I always worked hard, but not in the most intelligent way. Fitness was never a problem for me and I always felt like that’s the thing I could control the most,” she continued. “When I got older, I would work at least 14 hours a week on my technical skills in soccer — YouTube became my best friend in soccer drills. Coach Balzis organized our team very well and our assistant coach, Eugene Allen, created the best workout regimen from any coach I’ve had.
“My favorite part about being a Ram was the overnight trips with my team, whether it was soccer, basketball or track,” she said. “My teammates always pulled pranks on each other and I loved every second of messing with everyone. Winning districts and the Metro Cup were also fun in soccer, (although) I am still sad about getting second in state (in 2014).”
Impactful player at Midwestern State
Heading east to attend and play soccer at Midwestern State, Morlock says, “I fit in Texas better than New Mexico.
“New Mexico’s elevation gave me the upper hand in the cardio portion, but the girls in Texas were a lot bigger than me when I came to college,” she said. “Before college, my dad did not allow me to lift, so lifting was a shock for me — I was still one of the strongest but my form was terrible, so my strength coach made me use the PVC pipe till I got it right. I eventually got the hang of it.”
As a freshman, she earned NSCAA All-South Central Region third-team honors, All-Lone Star Conference first-team accolades and was named the Lone Star Conference Freshman of the Year.
As a sophomore, Morlock was an outside back, started in all 21 matches and earned NSCAA All-South Central Region second-team honors and All-Lone Star Conference first-team accolades, while ranking fourth for the Mustangs with nearly 1,900 minutes played.
In what should have been her junior season, an ACL injury and ensuing surgery kept her off the pitch. Not playing, though, didn’t mean she wasn’t learning anything: “Tearing my ACL was the worst and best thing that happened to me mentally. I saw the field from other players’ points of view. I went from starting and playing every game from the time I started soccer to sitting and watching. I lost 30 pounds in three months and did not handle it well. Seeing other teammates that were healthy and didn’t play and still be positive changed my mindset. I became the best cheerleader I could be. Attitude is contagious and I always wanted to spread positivity.”
As a redshirt junior the following season, she was again a first-team All-Lone Star Conference performer along the back line for the Mustangs, starting 17 matches and finishing second on the team in minutes played (1,528).
As a senior, she started 17 of the team’s 18 games, scored a career-high two goals with four assists, led the Mustangs with 16 shots on goal and helped them stay in the thick of the LSC playoff race until the final week of the season, and earned postseason honors on the All-LSC second team.
“I loved my time at college,” Morlock said. “I was captain for three years and received multiple awards all five years of college. … Winning conference with my team in 2016 — that was my favorite team of all time.
“I improved, thanks to my team, coaches, family and, sadly, injury. Damian Clarke and his assistant Hope Fredrick helped me the most out of any coach. They gave me the confidence to go pro. Ryan Spence helped humble me, which was necessary,” she added. “My last two years of college, I learned how to deal with things when they didn’t go my way.
On to Italy
What took her from Rio Rancho, to Wichita Falls and then to Italy?
“I joined a program called SMI. They help me get signed with professional teams in Italy. You show off for the team and you hope someone picks you up,” she explained. “I was lucky and my team picked me up and I love my club so far.”
When her Italian team, Aprilia, announced her signing for the 2020-21 season for the “Serie C Women’s team coached by Mr. Colantuoni,” it included a comment from Morlock, who had quickly learned that “American football is less tactical than Italian football, but above all, there is no distinction between roles, in the sense that they teach us to play in every position on the pitch. The goal, together with my teammates, is to win as many games as possible, trying to win the championship and land in Serie B.
“My coaches, Damian Clarke and Hope Fredrick, always had high expectations of me and always told me I could go pro.
“Occasionally they would send me links and coaches’ contacts to help me go pro,” she said, wary at first about playing a sport for money. “My dad is amazing and has always supported my dreams. I was hesitant at first to go pro but he always told me to do what makes me happy. Having my dad by my side made this whole process easier.
“I arrived in September and signed with my club in late October,” she said. “Coming to Italy was a huge culture shock. I knew absolutely no Italian and communicating on and off the field was rough. Rome is the most beautiful city I have ever seen and there is so much history here. I have never been overseas but I enjoy adapting to new cultures, so it was fun for me.”
As world travelers have discovered, it takes more than desire to cross an ocean, and Morlock relied on help from GoFundMe.
“Everyone who helped and donated to my GoFundMe me was a huge blessing,” she said. “Traveling overseas is always expensive and having people help me fulfill my dream was a huge blessing. My family helped me so much; my grandma and dad pushed me to chase my dream and my GoFundMe helped me accomplish playing pro and receiving my master’s.
“Every little cent helped me get here. I have the best people in my life.”
A team’s success, of course, depends on teamwork, and Morlock said she fit right in.
“I love my teammates — they are very accepting and welcoming,” she said. “Italians are extremely friendly, even if you don’t completely speak the language. Now that I am playing in games (she started in her team’s first three games and even found the back of the net) it is easier to fit in.
“COVID has completely changed the experience,” she said. “When I got here, everything was open and since January, we cannot sit in bars or restaurants. If you are outside or even in your car with a certain number of people, you must wear a mask or you could receive a fine of about 500 euros.
“We receive a COVID test weekly and if more than three players on either team test positive, the game is canceled.”