Michelle Harrison: Ready for Liftoff

RS sophomore F Michelle Harrison has put last year's lost season behind her and is looking to muscle her way to more minutes and maybe replace a piece of valued jewelry.

Promising – redshirt sophomore F Michelle Harrison has been called promising for a while now. Harrison came in as a frosh with a ton of hops and a pretty shot and played some effective and intriguing minutes at the edges of a crowded rotation at forward her first year. Bigger things seemed in store. After returning for her sophomore season in excellent shape and with a chance to be a major contributor, Harrison tore her ACL in the first game of the season at Yale and missed the entire season. She had another, smaller setback in September when further knee surgery kept her out for a few weeks as practices were starting. Harrison has since been making good progress getting back physically and establishing a place in the rotation. Throughout the season she has been receiving praise from the coaches (See this recent Bootleg interview with Associate Head Coach Amy Tucker, for example.) and has been identified as a player for whom the coaching staff would like to find more minutes. The Bootleg spoke to Harrison after a practice last week, before Stanford took on the Washington schools.

You've been earning praise from the coaches regarding adjustments and improvements to your game. What exactly have you done?

Most of it has been coming back. Obviously after a whole year out there has to be time where you get used to things again. But a lot of it has been about really trying to understand what the coaches need me to do. Everyone has individual roles and it's been more like understanding that ok, they've been putting me at a "3" and I need to be someone who is strong with the ball, who can use my size to get the ball inside. And my advantage also, being big, is to shoot over people. It's really trying to understand what they need me to do and being open to it and just really listening. I was really glad that Amy (Tucker) said good things about me. It always helps the confidence. It's just really being sure that they know I'm here to listen to whatever they're saying and ready to go.

You've been playing on the perimeter as a "3" a lot more. Do you enjoy it?

"3" was my main position in high school, although I was bigger (relative to the other players); "3" was my comfort position. I'm glad that they've trusted putting me back there and I'm having fun getting to shoot outside some more and being able to have the opportunity to put it on the floor. I love it. It's my spot! [Laughs]

So you probably will stay at that position?

I'm pretty much a "3" right now. When I started, as most people saw, I was a pure "4." Then it was kind of like both "3" and "4." Now it's kind of pure "3." But I'm still open if they need me to play the "4," I'll play the "4," "3," "2," whatever they need me to do.

What happened with your knee that you needed surgery in September after missing almost the whole season last year with the ACL tear?

When I originally did the injury, the ACL, I also tore my meniscus, my medial meniscus. They tried to go in to repair it just by stitching it back up. The stitches didn't hold. So it wasn't like a re-injury because it wasn't new, it wasn't fresh. It was something that was just old and just came apart, so all they did in September was they went back in and just took it out. Most of the time they try to save it but there's actually a higher chance of it not holding. But they always try. It just didn't hold so they got rid of it – pretty minor, back in like three weeks.

You're pretty well over everything and feeling good?

The knee is feeling good. I've had a few problems here and there, just with swelling and soreness because it's still, at the beginning, getting used to the load of a three-hour practice or doing all the running. Lately it's been feeling amazing. I think I'm just getting better and better.

The cliché is that people learn important things while out with a major injury. Is that true? Do you really learn much more than you really want to play?

[Laughs] Yeah, that's always reiterated pretty strongly. Oh, yeah, I think you definitely learn a lot. It's just an entirely different view that you have to take upon yourself. You watch everything and also the hunger, the drive – you realize oh my gosh, you have to appreciate things. If you're out there having a bad day, so what? You are out there playing. Those are things you take for granted. I remember when I couldn't even walk and I just wanted to be able to walk. So you realize if you're having a bad day or things are off or this and that, you're out there playing and you love to play. As long as you can remember that I think that's the biggest thing.

And all the things on the side where you get to see it more from a coach's point of view, like what are they trying to teach, what do they want, you know? What's the work ethic that they want? It's like taking that step back. You're hurt so you're forced to, but you have to be open to it. OK, so I'm out, I'm injured, I can't play, so I'm going to do the best I can to learn. I think I learned a lot, actually.

In a previous interview, classmate Melanie Murphy claimed you were the easiest teammate to amuse.

[Much laughter] I've been told that a lot through my entire life that I'm a laughing, smiling type. A lot of people say if you want to get like your confidence up, just go over to Michelle. [Laughs] I guess I take that as a compliment because if I'm known to be someone who is happy and laughing and having a good time, than that's fine with me. I guess I'm just easily amused. My family – we're crazy. [Laughs] We find so many things funny; some of the dumbest things are funny. My friends and I laugh over the dumbest things.

Harrison is not kidding. Our confidence is indeed up and we have the urge to tell her all our bad jokes. We resist long enough to ask another question. Has anything funny happened in practice recently?

I think yesterday in video, Tara (VanDerveer) said one of the funniest things I've heard in a long time. She said, "Excuses are like belly buttons – everyone has them but no one really needs them." I was like, wow!

But even if no one needs one now, we all surely did at one point.

I know! That's exactly…we were all like, "What? But you do need one." It was a bad analogy. But she tried, you know. She gets us laughing here and there. That was pretty funny. She throws out these one-liners pretty randomly at times. It was good.

In addition to being an easy person to get laughing, it is rumored you love the outdoors. Is that right?

I love the outdoors. Being in Utah the mountains are in your backyard. You grow up there and you have to enjoy the outdoors because the mountains are right there. They're beautiful. You can go camping, fishing. My mom's not necessarily an outdoor person bur most of my family is. We love it. We usually go on a family camping trip once a year in the summer. We'll go, get the siblings together. We have some outdoor dogs, some hunting dogs that hunt birds and we'll take them out and watch them do their thing. I've always thought about having animals and living up on a ranch or something like that when I get older. I love that stuff.

Do you do any outdoor things out here in California?

The only outdoor thing right here is the beach. That's what's closest here. It's a change of scene but it's still the outdoors – I love it. Not really much to do because the water is so cold but I just go and enjoy the scene. Sometimes I'll drive up through the hills for the scenery and just look at it. It's really pretty. Being a student/athlete here you're kind of not given the privilege of time to go out and camp or fish.

Do you have any free time on most days?

The important thing is getting as much rest as possible. A lot of that free time you try to take advantage of a nap or something. A lot of people think you're just wasting your day, but no. [Laughs]

One of the items on the agenda that takes up time is lifting weights. After over two years of weightlifting, are you much stronger? Can you tell that when you play?

Oh yeah. Well the biggest change is just growth, maturing into my body. In high school I was pretty close to this height (Harrison is listed at 6'3"), maybe a little bit shorter, but I was about thirty pounds lighter and obviously I don't think I'm an overweight person, so… I've filled in. I used to have ankles that were like this (small circle) but now it's pretty proportional.

I love to compete in the weight room. I take pride in how strong I am. Tara says that to me a lot, "You're a big guard and you're strong – you need that." It's also taking pride if I can help my team by being strong than I'm going to do that. I mean she tells me to get on the boards. They usually say that Nneka (Ogwumike) and I have the hops on the team, so that's all a part of the weight room too. When it's the off-season definitely I'm in that weight room. Obviously we don't do it as much during the season but when I'm in there I'm competing, really trying to push myself. It's a thing I always want to continue - just being strong.

How much can you lift?

Last year my bench press max was 175, around my body weight, which they usually say is good. You want to get close to your body weight. I think last tine my squat max was around 230/240 but haven't done that in a while. They try to be nice to [my left knee].

It's also that when you're in the weight room and you see somebody lift a high weight, you think, "I've got to get higher than that." Even though it's my teammates, you want to be the strongest. Kate (Paye) has told me I'm the strongest person on the team. I don't really know if I am because we're not told and we don't always check each other's weights or whatever, but I try to make sure I am. I make sure I push myself hard enough that I am. I'm confident! [Laughs]

What about the jumping, the dunking? Can you still dunk after the knee injury and all the rehab or did you give it up in the name of staying healthy?

It's been difficult with coming back and just being more focused on getting in shape. The hops are coming. They're coming slowly but surely. I haven't tried dunking in a long time. It just hasn't been a priority. I'm very confident come later in the year or next year – yes, it will be there for sure! Back and probably better. I want that back. I want that feeling of having the spring, the hop, that I used to have.

When she came in as a freshman, Harrison had plenty of experienced competition at her position. Last season, the way was relatively clear to make a significant contribution, but she was hurt in the opening moments of the season. This year, the forward spots are again crowded with talented teammates. Is it difficult to deal with starting over and trying to get reestablished with playing time at a premium?

I'm a believer that things happen for a reason. I was out last year and yeah, maybe…I came back in really good shape and there was chance for me to really get in there and have a significant amount of minutes. And with that taken away, it hurts but I think maybe it's better for me to get out and have to reestablish myself, have to work for it, because then I know if I get there, I've really and truly earned it. I see people in professional sports, for example, who got there but I don't think they really earned it. The amount of respect goes down. For those who really give it the blood, sweat, and tears, you really look up to them. I kind of want to be that kind of role model one day. When you give it your all, you really can be successful. If that's the reason I was injured and I have to learn it all over again or I have to grit it out and keep working, I'll do it. I'm glad to be here. I'm excited to be here. It's been a challenging year but I think we're doing really well. We're getting better every day and I've never had any doubt in my mind we could get back to the Final Four. I actually gave my Final Four ring away to my sister because she's been my coach since I was like four, and when I was out she was there for me, really supported me, so I want her to have it. I want to make sure I give it to her so I can fight to get my own back, you know? I want my own ring!

What does the team need to do to get that ring again?

I have no doubt that we have enough talent and enough ability to get there. It's actually interesting, because on our day off I decided to watch the movie, "Miracle," the hockey one about the 1980 Olympic team. It's a great movie, one of my favorite sports movies. It's about these college kids that get together and they beat the best hockey team in the world, that's won every Olympics for years. But what you see in that team is the camaraderie, the passion that they have to get out there and play with each other. They learn it's for the name on the front, not the name on the back. I think the more we can get to that, the more we can get out there and just love to play together – I'm not saying we don't but you can always improve and a lot of people have said, a lot of people talking around, like where's the passion, where's the grit, you know? We've shown some grit here and there but we're looking for that consistency where everyone goes out there and we can just feel the intensity that we bring and the passion that we bring in playing together and just loving the game. I think it's just more like there are places we want to go and we just have to fight to get it. Today I thought it was great. The coaches are implementing things to get us to fight more and get us to be more aggressive and get us to be more intense. We'll get there. I have no doubt we'll get there. That's probably the only thing I'd say and what I think most people have noticed. But we'll get there.

It was there in the second half of the Arizona State game.

It's there. We show it. It's not like it's not there. Let's just get it every game. No matter who it is, even if it's a team we don't have this big worry about them. You still want to show how much we want this game. We want to compete. We want to show not only the Pac-10 but the whole country that we are one of the top teams and we can get back to the Final Four. I'm very confident we can do it.

You may not need super powers to do that, but if you could have any super power, which one would it be?

I've been asked that a lot. They do that in class sometimes or new activities to get to know you. And I've always said to fly. I've always wanted to fly. I have dreams where I'm flying.

But you already can jump so well…

But if I could fly, I could just dunk whenever I wanted to. [Laughs] And I could do the windmill jams everyone wants to see or the 360's. I've always wanted to fly, definitely.

A few days after this interview, the Card demonstrated the aggression and intensity they have been seeking in wins over the two Washington schools, and in the game against Washington State, Harrison flew to a career-best 16 points. Stanford doesn't need a miracle on the order of the 1980 USA Olympic hockey team's triumph and Harrison doesn't really need to fly for the Card to pick up another set of Final Four rings, but getting quality minutes from the sophomore with the hops might be one of the elements that send them flying over the moon once again.

To view a slide show of Don Anderson's photos taken during this interview with Michelle Harrison, click HERE.

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