Morgan Davis flew into the AHSAA history books with 13 state track and field titles and 56 career first-place finishes. (Helen Joyce/Call News)
By ARTHUR L. MACK
It’s hard to believe that perhaps the best female track and field athlete in Alabama high school history once hated practice so much she had to be bribed to do it.
At Semmes Middle School, Morgan Davis was a blossoming volleyball standout due to her leaping ability but her mother signed up her and her brother for summer track.
“I dreaded going out there because of the heat and everything,” Davis said. “She had to bribe us with milkshakes after practice because I could not stand summer track at the time. I just didn’t like running. I didn’t really start running until my eighth-grade year. My seventh-grade year, I was just jumping.”
But Shannon Nobles had a feeling her daughter was going to be far from ordinary when she brought Davis into the world on Aug. 10, 2005.
“I knew she was a Curious George and she was going to be something,” Nobles said. “If it was not as an athlete, it was going to be in the media or something. Talking with people, we knew she was going to be something because when she came out, she was involved in everything she could be involved in.”
That includes a collection of 13 state track and field titles, including historic performances in the long jump and high jump in her final state meet, 56 career first-place finishes and a track scholarship to the University of Kentucky. Davis was also named the Gatorade Alabama Girls Track and Field Athlete of the Year.
Davis was one of only two female prep athletes nationally to clear 6-0 in the high jump and jump over 20 feet in the long jump, according to Erik Boal, editor at DyeStat.com.
Davis maintained a 3.92 GPA at Saraland and served as a volunteer with the Boys and Girls Clubs of South Alabama and at a church summer camp.
As a senior, Davis (5-8, 135) broke a 38-year-old record by becoming the first female in state history to clear 6 feet in the high jump and set the long-jump record by soaring 20-8½.
Add her 3.9 grade-point average in advanced courses, an honors diploma from Saraland High School and her volunteer service in various community programs and it seems Davis is just getting started on a phenomenal life.
“She is one of those types of athletes that you only get to coach once in a career,” Saraland track and field coach Matt Dearmon said. “However, she’s also one of the hardest-working athletes I have ever had the chance to coach.”
Davis’ father, Devin D. Nobles Sr., said sometimes he must stop and absorb just how good his daughter is.
“Morgan is Morgan and I don’t feel any different with her but knowing what she does, when I sit back and watch videos, I’m like, ‘Wow! This girl’s jumped taller than me!’ I have to sit and realize what we actually have here.”
Davis feels she is a natural jumper, a contention bolstered by her technique in the long jump.
Shannon Nobles said a Kentucky coach once asked Davis why she kept moving her approach and she said she didn’t have a mark.
“You’re going to be great,” he told her.
Her parents said Davis is scratching the surface of her ability.
“All this is a natural thing for her and with more formal training, she’ll be a lot better,” he said.
Davis enjoys being coached, her mother said.
“She’s always looking for coaches to help her,” Shannon Nobles said. “She’ll call some coaches and ask, ‘Hey, can you help me with this?’ There’s so many technical things that need to be fixed. You’re looking at raw talent right now.”
A bumpy road
The road Davis took to track stardom was far from straight and smooth.
She first got involved in volleyball at Semmes Middle School on a bet she wouldn’t make the team. But Davis had a vertical attack leap of 10 feet, 4 inches, which made her a formidable force on the volleyball court and the long jump runway.
Davis made an easy transition to track and field at Semmes Middle School and found her stride once she got over her dislike of practice, becoming a big part of SMS winning the Mobile County Middle School championship in 2018 and 2019.
Coach Tony Guardalabene helped teach Davis the fundamentals of the high jump — “There’s a video of her dunking a tennis ball,” her mother said — and by the time she was 14, Davis was the top middle school long-jumper and high-jumper in the state and made All-American in the 2019 New Balance National Outdoor Championships.
“It was kind of a breakthrough,” she said. “I started to love the sport. I was also playing volleyball, so I just put track to the side and I didn’t put much effort into it.”
‘Something to prove’
During Davis’ years at Semmes Middle School, her mother married Devin Nobles, an event that laid the groundwork for Davis’ stellar career at Saraland.
Her parents moved to Saraland and Davis transferred there but she was unhappy because she left her friends behind in Semmes.
“Coming into Saraland, I wasn’t happy,” Davis said. “During my freshman year, I missed my friends a lot, then COVID happened. It took a toll on my mental health and me stopping sports was tough. My ninth-grade year was not the best.”
She was torn between volleyball and track.
“Track just kind of went out the door and during my freshman year I was only doing the high jump,” she said. “I really didn’t like high jump at the time and I didn’t really like track my freshman year because I wasn’t allowed to run — all the seniors were running.”
To help relieve the boredom during the pandemic, Davis jumped and flipped on a trampoline in the backyard to stay in shape. Once the COVID crisis passed, Davis was determined to get back on the volleyball court and on the track.
“She felt she had something to prove, so she just jumped right in it,” Shannon Nobles said.
Semmes Middle School track coach Michael Spriggs had a conversation with Dearmon about Davis’ potential, which began turning into reality as a sophomore. She went undefeated in the high jump and long jump, won the Class 6A state title with a personal best of 19-½, won six of seven 100-meter races, five 200-meter contests and finished third in the state 200 despite a pulled quad muscle.
“There were a lot more positive vibes and then when track season came along, they let me do whatever,” Davis said. “I didn’t talk much — I was just having a lot of fun. The seniors in my sophomore year were all so supportive and it definitely helped my confidence. It made me feel like I was good at this sport and I wanted to start taking it seriously. That’s when I started looking at track over volleyball.”
“She said she was never going to lose again,” Shannon Nobles said.
As Davis approached her junior year, expectations were even greater after she won two state titles as a sophomore.
“I guess everybody was expecting me to win state again,” she said. “I felt a lot of pressure there because I was the first state champion and they were all excited. Coming back from the injury in the 200, I was kind of scared. I took some time off and I had to regroup and get myself together and get ready for volleyball. My junior year was the first year I got real training and taking the sport seriously. Getting individual training in every event helped.”
Davis’ confidence was boosted when she was named the 2022 Mobile Challenge of Champions Female Outstanding Meet Performer after winning the 100, 200 and long jump. She went on to win the same three events at the state meet.
But Davis had her eyes opened when she competed against the best athletes in the U.S. at the New Balance meet and AAU Junior Olympics.
“I would say it kind of humbled me and made me eager to go to work,” she said. “It boosted my drive and made me want to work harder.”
Staying on track
Finally, Davis had to decide to concentrate on track or volleyball.
“When I started putting track first, it got in the way of volleyball,” Davis said. “My senior year, I had to miss tons of games because of recruiting commitments and I thought I was kind of letting the team down because I was a key player on the team. That was pretty hard for me in the fall. I wasn’t able to enjoy my visits because I was leaving the team a lot and missing a lot of tournaments and games.
“I really wanted to focus on track because track was the sport for me. When I was cheerleading, my dad said to me: ‘Do you want to be the person who cheers them on or do you want to be the person who they cheer for?’ It made me think.”
Davis focused solely on track and field her senior year but it wasn’t easy at first because she was called on to run indoors for the first time.
“I never ran or jumped on (an indoor surface) and a lot of people were expecting me to win state again,” she said.
Davis won three events in the state indoor meet — the 60 meters, the 4×200 relay and the long jump, in which she set a new CrossPlex facility record (19-5).
Some of the outdoor meets were just as tough, especially after Davis lost an early-season 200-meter showdown with St. Paul’s Janie Ford at the Saraland Invitational.
“My senior year was probably my mentally hardest year,” she said. “I was in my head a lot this season and kind of forgot why I was doing this sport. In the 200 at the Saraland Invitational, I definitely wasn’t focused in that race, I was focused more on the weather.”
Davis lost the 200 to Ford, 25.14 seconds to 25.25, but came back to win the high jump in 5-8.
Beneficial loss leads to glory
After losing to Ford in the 200, Davis took a hard look at herself.
“I felt like, ‘Wow, I just lost this race and I’m not used to losing,’” she said. “I felt like I disappointed a lot of people. After that meet, I stayed mentally focused for each event and I think that loss definitely helped me achieve more that season. It’s like everything happens for a reason and I think I needed to lose that race to achieve what I did.”
Davis soon got back on the winning track, repeating as the Mobile Challenge of Champions Female Outstanding Meet Performer, winning the 100 and 200 and the long jump in a meet-record 20-4½.
As the state meet approached, Davis didn’t feel positive because of what she considered sub-par performances in the sectionals.
“My confidence was feeling kind of low,” she said. “I was pretty nervous going into state. In the sectional meet, I didn’t hit any of the times I wanted and I felt far off. … I felt I was not making progress. I know you shouldn’t compare yourself to other people but I felt I was stuck. That really knocked my confidence for state.”
But Davis stayed focused thanks to a change in the 200-meter heats due to weather delays which allowed her to concentrate more on the high jump, leading to her record-setting clearance.
“The week of state, I didn’t practice high jump at all because at sectionals, I didn’t do as well as I wanted to,” she said. “Coming over to the high jump (at state), I said I was going to relax and go with the flow and see how things go. They went really well. I think I was really having fun with the event and when you’re having fun, you don’t put pressure on yourself.”
Another thing that helped Davis clear 6 feet was the presence of Murphy’s Kelly Gregory, who set the previous record of 5-10 in 1985.
“She actually told Morgan, ‘I’m looking forward to you breaking my record at state,’” Shannon Nobles said.
UK says no way
Before Davis’ spectacular final high school year, Kentucky showed little interest in her.
“Coach Dearmon actually contacted Kentucky because it was one of my dream schools and the coaches were not really amazed at my numbers,” Davis said. “That was just like a blow to me but I knew I had to keep working hard so I could get my numbers up. It was just motivation for me to do even better and show them I could go to their school.”
Shannon Nobles said UK told her daughter she must clear 21 feet in the long jump before its coaches would talk to her, upsetting her father, who didn’t want Davis to visit UK. But when she finally went to Lexington, she felt her dream had come true.
“It was the most rewarding experience because they were like family and they didn’t put pressure on her if she made mistakes,” her mother said.
While other schools — including LSU, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt, Miami, Purdue, Alabama and South Alabama — showed strong interest in Davis, she chose Kentucky during her visit, partly for meeting Wildcats alumnus and Olympian Abby Steiner.
“She was definitely starstruck,” Devin Nobles said. “(Meeting Steiner) was the deciding factor (in signing with UK).”
Davis vividly remembers meeting Steiner.
“That was really a crazy time being on the track where she trained and talking to her coach and talking with her,” Davis said. “She was so sweet and she told me I can do what I put my mind to and don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t to it. When she said that, it made me open my eyes to how much I achieved.”
It became clear at the state meet that the higher the stakes, the better Davis performed.
“To push her further, she has to have competition,” Devin Nobles said.
Two of a kind
It’s much the same way with Saraland five-star receiver and Mr. Football Ryan Williams, with whom she developed a kinship. They also enjoy coaching the younger athletes together.
Williams — who had the state’s best times in the 100-, 200- and 400-meter dashes this year — said the way Davis handles herself and works is an inspiration and added she has helped him broaden his horizons.
“She’s a great athlete and a really good human being,” Williams said. “She’s inspired me to get into the sprints a little bit more. I think she’ll be great at Kentucky. What makes her so great, I think, it’s the way she approaches her races. She’s doesn’t back down from a challenge.
“We definitely clicked because we have the same mindset. She attacks her grind like I attack my football. She gave me the inspiration that I can do track. She helped me to understand that there’s more to life than just football. I definitely like the relationship we’ve built.”
McGill-Toolen graduate Anthony Eager, who will play football for South Alabama, felt a similar effect.
“She’s given me encouragement to go out there and do my thing,” he said. “I don’t have to worry about anybody else.”
Dearmon said Davis not only made an indelible impression on the Saraland track program but also her teammates.
“Our whole team loves being around Morgan and we celebrate her success with her,” Dearmon said. “She’s also very humble. She doesn’t even realize how good she really is. She doesn’t carry herself arrogantly whatsoever. She just loves to compete and will do whatever we ask her to do to help her team win.”