When Whitney Harris attended her first Woodland basketball practice last summer, nobody knew how things would end up.
Transferring schools is always tough, especially prior to one’s senior year. Add in the fact that she would be the lone 12th-grader on a team destined to go through some growing pains, and it’s quite remarkable this is the end result: Harris has been named the Daily Tribune News Player of the Year.
She put up solid stats across the board to inject herself into the POY conversation, averaging 12 points per game, four rebounds, two assists and 1.5 steals. A Region 7-AAAAA honorable mention, Harris knocked down 59 3-pointers and also drew 22 charges to showcase her toughness on defense, despite playing out of position on that end of the floor.
“She led us in just about every statistical category offensively,” Woodland head coach Kyle Morgan said. “... She had good vision, very unselfish. She was one of our primary ball-handlers.
“Defensively, a lot of times, she had to play out of her true position against bigger kids down low, which said a lot about her selfless nature. She also set a school record with 22 drawn charges, which speaks to her willingness to do whatever she can to help her team have a chance to win.”
There were a few other girls in Bartow County who put up stats at the same or maybe even a slightly higher level. But none of them had the impact on their teammates the way Harris did.
That is what ultimately set her apart this season.
“Off the court, she was probably more valuable to us than on the court,” Morgan said. “First and foremost, she’s a great student-athlete. She has a 3.87. She’s currently ranked, I believe, 23rd out of 320 kids who will graduate with her. She was our lone senior on the team, and we only had one other upperclassman on the team, a junior.
“The leadership she was able to show for those younger kids is invaluable. ... Overall, a positive influence for those kids. Something for them to kind of look up to and, hopefully, emulate as they get older and grow more into the program and as student-athletes at Woodland High School.”
When Harris showed up at that first summer practice, it was anybody’s guess how things would go. But from the beginning, she knew she had found her new team, her new school and her new home.
“When I went to Woodland for the first time for the basketball practice, it was like all the girls welcomed me in,” Harris said. “There was not one mean thing said. There was not anything [negative]. They were all nice. I was very comfortable with all of the coaches. The coaches were amazing. They greeted me with open arms. I can’t thank them enough for doing that.
“It made it 10 times easier transferring schools, walking in with an amazing team like those group of girls are.”
It would be difficult for any person to be the only senior on an underclassmen-laden squad. Harris’ ability to transfer from Excel without knowing anyone and almost instantly become the leader for a team that desperately needed one shows a lot about the leadership qualities she possesses.
“I think that’s what God has called me to do,” Harris said. “My dad has always helped me and shown me how to be a leader. I thank my dad for that. It was difficult, because I wasn’t sure how the other girls were going to take it. But they all accepted me, and I was glad that I could be that senior and that leader for the team this year.”
As could be expected given the circumstances, things didn’t always go swimmingly for Woodland, which finished 7-17 after a 3-11 start. It took nearly two-third of the season for the Wildcats to finally start seeing consistent success on the court.
During the struggles, Harris admitted it wasn’t always easy to remain positive, but she said going through those difficult times and coming out the other side made the season even more special.
“It was frustrating at times to overcome different things,” Harris said. “That’s just part of life and growing with a new team and playing together. But I was very happy with the season that we had, and all the girls worked hard. There wasn’t a game or practice that they didn’t give it their all.”
After watching how Harris handled being a newcomer, a senior and a leader on a team that struggled to win games through the first two months of the season, Morgan knows the team will miss her mightily next season.
“Losing definitely brings out the true character in you,” Morgan said. “Unfortunately, we had that experience a good bit, but she was positive with her teammates, her thoughts and actions. ...
“Of all the things we’ll probably miss, aside from her ability to play the game of basketball, will be her leadership and ability to be a great teammate. Those are things you can’t really measure on a box score or in wins and losses. The kids, they definitely looked up to her, and she really had a lot of qualities that will be hard to replace.”
Woodland will be hard pressed to replace her shooting ability next season.
Harris averaged nearly 2.5 triples per game, even though nearly every team the Wildcats faced focused on slowing her down.
“I take it as competition,” Harris said. “If a team is going to try to shut me down, then I just have to work that much harder at practice to show it off in a game. There were teams that did shut me down. A couple of games, I didn’t play my very best, and that was just great defense. But next time, I knew I had to work to not allow that to affect my game.”
She also fought to make sure having to play in the post didn’t affect her. A true shooting guard, Harris was often being asked to defend players four to five inches taller than her.
As with everything else that came her way during the season, she embraced the opportunity and saw it as a learning experience.
“It was definitely different being down low,” Harris said. “This was actually my first year being down low on defense, but I took it as a challenge. Some girls, most girls, were taller than I was. That doesn’t change [anything]. Defense is all about the heart. ... Height, it didn’t really bother me, because I knew I had the heart to play defense.”
Despite all those adjustments — new school, new teammates and new responsibilities — arguably the biggest transition came from having to play under a new coach.
When she was at Excel, Harris’ father, Eric, had been her coach. Sometimes that dynamic can be difficult for a player, but Harris certainly obtained a high basketball IQ and impeccable leadership qualities from her dad.
Still, in some ways, Harris preferred having her dad cheer from the stands during her final high school season.
“There was a little bit of an adjustment, because my dad has always been my coach,” Harris said. “But coach Morgan was a great coach, and I’m blessed that I got to play for him. I’m glad my dad got to be ‘dad’ in the stands this year and got to watch my senior year.”
That relationship with Morgan, and the bond she shared with her teammates, can all be traced back to the summer workouts where Harris embraced her new opportunity.
She left a positive impression that day and every one since.
“As a basketball player, I was initially impressed with how well she could shoot and also how hard she played,” Morgan said. “As a person, her willingness to go outside her comfort zone and try to be open towards new people and new things. We were probably asking her to do some things she hadn’t done before. ...
“She’s definitely answered all the challenges and has been probably more successful in lots of regards than I would have imagined. That credits go back to her, her family and her faith.”