March 18, 2011 8:24:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- James Harris was already well known in track and field before he arrived at Mississippi State.
But Harris'' reputation didn''t earn him special consideration from the judges at the NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championship.
One of two freshman jumpers at the meet, Harris was on the bubble to make All-American, and he waited nervously as the judges sorted out the performers'' top marks.
After learning his height of 7 feet, 2 1/2 inches earned him seventh place and his first All-America honor, Harris was overjoyed and relieved. He had been on national stages as a 2009 USA Track and Field 400-meter champion and as a 2010 Amateur Athletic Union Junior Olympic champion in the 200, 400, and high jump.
Still, he knew college is a different level, and making All-American in just his second semester at MSU was something to cherish.
"Sitting there waiting for the judges to tell you if you were in top eight, my heart was beating fast," Harris said. "I was proud of my performance because I was one of two freshmen jumping. The fact I made it did something good for me. I went in jumping in the top half of guys that made it."
As surprised as Harris was to make top eight at the NCAA meet, MSU coach Steve Dudley was blown away by the performance because it is so difficult for a freshman to become an All-American at their first NCAA championship.
"A lot of times when you go from high school to college, there''s a lot of things to adjust to: Your time management during the day, study hall hours, the whole nine yards," Dudley said, "so you''ll see it''s hard for a freshman to step in, score, and make all-American off the bat. For him to do that right off the bat indoors is very, very good. That tells us going into outdoors he''s not a freshman anymore."
A slew of All-Americans surround Harris at MSU. Sprint stars Tavaris Tate, O''Neal Wilder, D''Angelo Cherry, Kendall May, and Emanuel Mayers help lead the charge for MSU. Dudley has mentored 20 All-Americans as an assistant or as a head coach at MSU, so Harris feels the pressure of meeting high standards in Starkville.
Recruited by heavyweight track programs UCLA, Texas A&M, and LSU, Harris selected MSU because of the guys he''d have around him.
A gifted runner and jumper, Harris will team with Mayers, Wilder, and Daundre Barnaby on the 4x400-meter relay team in MSU''s first outdoor meet Saturday at the Ragin'' Cajun Classic at Louisiana-Lafayette. He also will run a leg on the 4x100 relay team.
"I saw at MSU I had guys in front of me who were not gonna leave after my freshman year," Harris said. "I would have time to chase them, and that''s what I''ve been doing most of my time so far. In high school, I always wanted to race somebody who was faster than me, and now I have that on my practice grounds. It''s a piece of cake (in meets) when you have that competition in practice. As a whole, they motivate and teach. They make it a whole lot easier."
Harris said Mayers and Wilder have mentored him since he arrived at MSU. He calls the pair his "big brothers" because they help him balance personal life and the load of competing in the high jump and in multiple sprint events.
Mayers knows what it''s like to earn points at NCAAs in different events. He took sixth in the 400 hurdles and second as a member of the 4x400 relay last season.
Wilder has battled through micro-fracture surgery in his knee and extensive hip surgery in December. He also played football at MSU.
Though the Bulldogs lost Jamaican sprinter Dwight Mullings, who has since signed a pro deal with Puma, Wilder believes Harris has the tools to handle the 400 and high jump.
Wilder said he has formed a close friendship with Harris.
"He comes over to the house almost every night, sits on my bed, plays video games, and just talks and stuff," Wilder said. "People say we''re the same: Tall, skinny, and real goofy. I guess that''s what makes us click. I''m a little more experienced and a little older, so I can tell him things I''ve been through to help him."
MSU''s depth in the sprint events should take pressure off Harris to score points, at least until the end of the season and the Southeastern Conference and the NCAA meets. What he can provide in the high jump, however, will give the Bulldogs valuable points at those events. Last season, sprinters earned the majority of the Bulldogs'' points.
Harris gives MSU the potential to be a top-10 team when nationals arrive, so his form in the high jump will be more valuable.
He has raised his official personal record from 7-3 to 7-4 1/2 since arriving on campus, but the biggest difference in his form has been his consistency in his approach before he leaps. He said he has hardly worked on his jumping technique with assistant coach Steve Thomas.
"I''m more consistent with jumping over 7-2," Harris said. "In high school, I cleared 7-3 and the highest I cleared six weeks after was 6-8. It''s to the point where I''m getting the approach and technique.
"Jumping was my strength, but that''s the only thing I could do. I just had the gift of jumping and it was getting me over the bar, but that only goes so far. Now I''ve got the training I need."
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