JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (May 23, 2011) - "Raw talent and a hard worker." That's ETSU Sprints Coach Brandon Morton on freshman sprinter Emani Harrison (Columbia, S.C.) almost a year ago, before the South Carolina native got her wings in collegiate competition.
Now, heading to her first NCAA regional meet as a mere freshman, Harrison said she credits Morton as the reason she chose to be a Buccaneer. "Coach Morton found me when I was in high school," said Harrison, "and saw the potential in me that I didn't even know I had."
If some of the best athletes are modest to the core, then Harrison is right up there at the top. Her potential, which Morton saw in her, translated into four top-four finishes at the South Carolina High School League 2009 Class AAA state championships. Ironically, Harrison's lowest finish that day came in the 100-meter dash, the event she runs in less than a week on the NCAA regional stage in Bloomington, Ind.
In addition to fourth in the 100, Harrison took third in the 200, second in the 400 and an unprecedented first in the long jump, her first try at the event. Win gold? Hey, sure, why not. Harrison tallied the four best women's finishes for A. C. Flora High and the majority of its 34 points that Saturday on the campus of Lower Richland in Hopkins, S.C.
Harrison made some solid impressions, running among a gaggle of top-ten schools in a meet that turned into a two-horse race between J. L. Mann's AAAA program and Greer, far and away atop the AAA standings. An athlete could easily get lost in the shuffle, but luckily for Harrison, Morton picked up on a good thing.
"Emani is a prime example of a talented kid that was overlooked," said Morton. "I noticed her and she chose ETSU out of all the schools that were interested."
At ETSU, Harrison retains the next three years' eligibility on the track, but she is already a step ahead of the game in the classroom, having logged the 2009-10 and 2010-11 academic years toward a degree in political science with a minor in education.
Taking a year to acclimate herself to the college life, far away from her mother Yolanda and her grandparents Robert and Edna, proved a vital part of her maturation into a true Division I student-athlete. Both Morton and Harrison agreed that academics come first, a big factor in her decision to come to Johnson City.
"I always pushed academics first and athletics second," Morton said. "I think her parents appreciated that, so it made the choice easy for them."
Reflecting on her academic responsibilities, Harrison said that at ETSU, "they really want all their athletes to pass and put their books first, so they had study hall, mentors and tutoring sessions, which helped me out a lot through both my fall and spring semester.
"I did have a mentor who met with me like two hours a week to discuss my work," she added, "and study hall was there so I could do my work and get hours." Harrison said she hopes to one day become a lawyer, that she feels a natural talent for the courtroom similar to that for the track. Her education minor, she said, speaks to her desire to teach children.
With her academic plans already in motion, Harrison began work on her long-term athletic ambition: to win an Olympic gold medal.
Last fall, Harrison joined her team on the ETSU-MSHA Center floor for the 2010-11 indoor season, where she said she felt right at home, "starting a new future with a new track family." An optimistic outlook helped Harrison balance her first year on the track with her second year in the classroom, filling the 237-mile gap between here and home. And, she added, an outgoing personality always helps.
"Adjusting wasn't too bad for me because Iâ€™m a lovable person," she said with a warm smile. "You can ask anyone I'm good to get along with at any time."
A positive personality and pure potential fused early for the freshman as she blazed to her first collegiate title in just her first event of the season, the Appalachian Invitational in Boone, N.C., winning the 55 in 7.10 last Dec. 5. Breaking into 2011, she took second in the 60 at the Liberty Invitational in Lynchburg, Va., Jan. 29 with a time of 7.73, just ahead of senior mentor Jasmine Ingram (Frederick, Md.). She improved the time a week later under her own roof, taking third in 7.66 at the 33rd Annual Niswonger Invitational, the perennial primer for the big one, the Atlantic Sun Indoor Championships.
Carrying a top-seeded time into the conference meet, Harrison pushed the envelope even further with the top qualifying time on Day 1, 7.63 in the 60. Despite being the best after one day, Harrison knew she needed to be even better in the finals.
She was, beating her lifetime best in 7.62. But it would not amount to gold in the end, as experienced senior sprinter Louise Kiernan won the event for Jacksonville by three-hundredths of a second.
"Where do I begin with the indoor championship," Harrison reflected. "I fell just a hair short. When I think back on my race and ask myself what I could have done to win, I know now, because like my coach said, they were all just simple technical problems."
Instead of letting those three-hundredths of a second cast a pall on her season that would last for weeks, Harrison chose to value the lesson learned. "I wish I could take the race back to where I could win again. But then again," she said, "I don't, because I learned from my race and [it] made me work even harder on the track to achieve my goal."
Transitioning to the outdoor season, Harrison became a crucial piece of the 4x400 relay puzzle, guiding them into the top five at the Charlotte 49er Invitational and then into the top three at the Weems Baskin Relays at the University of South Carolina, right close to home in Columbia. Harrison also logged a top-ten run in the 100 in front of friends and family.
That mark of 11.98 stood as the top conference mark for the 100 going into the A-Sun Outdoor Championships in Jacksonville, Fla., where Harrison again outdid herself with a new personal best of 11.91 and the top qualifier that Friday. But on Saturday it was deja vu for Harrison: Kiernan again edged the freshman for the title, despite another personal record of 11.71, one-fifth of a second faster than before, the top finish for ETSU in women's sprints.
With the outdoor season all said and done as far as conference competition, Harrison shifted her focus to a new goal: being inside the exclusive 48-athlete bubble of NCAA regional qualifiers.
Immediately, Harrison chiseled away at her previous time in the 100, getting down to 11.67 with a gold medal at the Charlotte Invite a week after Jacksonville. But as thousands of athletes funneled through several meets around the region in the next few weeks, the same old standard for Harrison's entire season rang true yet again.
She would need more. A quicker jump off the blocks. A longer nose at the tape. A faster finish. A better time. So what's new?
Not far from home, she found it yet again. A remarkable 11.63 in the preliminaries at the last stop of the season, the Clemson Final Qualifier, put Harrison on the brink and eventually plunged her into the regional pool.
With the odds stacked against her and time running out, Harrison said that while she was hopeful, she was also realistic, and that seeing her name turn up as the No. 39 time in the region was a pleasant surprise.
"Being a freshman and going to regional is still a shock to me," Harrison said, "because I had a lot of competition and people who are way older than me.
"But God had a plan for me and I made it to regional, and I am so thankful because I wouldn't be here without my family support and my coach."
Just a week ago, Ingram, her senior teammate, was already in. Senior men's sprinter Mike James (Palm Bay, Fla.) was already in. Ifrish Alberg (Paramaribo, Suriname), a fellow freshman, was already in. And now, Harrison is in, packing her bags for Bloomington, Ind., and a chance at regional glory and beyond.
Emani means faith, a family name that was also her great-grandmother's. Through faith in her family, her coach, and most importantly herself, Harrison has already won the first of so many heats on the track of life.
To follow Harrison and her teammates in Bloomington, check out Indiana University's Web site, iuhoosiers.cstv.com, for more on the regional preliminary. For more on the road from Johnson City to Bloomington, visit ETSUBucs.com.