By Tony Wittkowski | Reporter | MLive – Muskegon Chronicle
WHITEHALL, MI — Jessica Harris was the heart of the Whitehall girls cross country team during the 2014 season.
Harris won five meets while capping off her senior year by becoming an all-state runner in November. Her cross country career has come full circle.
Four years ago in the back of her coach’s classroom as a freshman, Harris looked up at a wall filled with the names of Whitehall’s greatest runners and realized she wanted to be on it.
“It was a really big deal to me. I remember looking up there thinking I wanted to be up there,” said Harris, who was named the MLive Muskegon Chronicle girls cross country runner of the year honor. “I used to look up to Carpenter and Danielson. It kind of shows when you’re given the opportunity how much it changes you.”
Harris began running cross country the way most do – through a family member. For Harris, it was her older brother who ran and told her she should follow suit.
“I remember he was worried about me,” she said. “He told me, ‘You are going to find a family there and they were going to take care of you.’”
Kathy Hector is the coach for Whitehall boys and girls cross country teams and said she knows talent when she sees it.
Having coached her older brother, Hector watched Harris run in middle school waited eagerly for her freshman year to come.
“We had a banquet (recently) and I looked over her career and talked about how she has set the standard,” Harris said. “Her name is synonymous in the area for being the top cross country runner in the area.”
Setting the standard
Her first race was at Hesperia and found the course to be extremely hilly. She wasn’t fast, but discovered the runner’s high in the process.
As someone who is not the most outgoing person, Harris found her stride as well as the extra confidence needed for the transition to high school.
“I am pretty shy and it takes a while for me to get comfortable with people,” Harris said. “I think one thing that it really helped was that it made everything more fun. High school was more fun. In a lot of ways it inspired me.”
She was well on her way to becoming a leader for Whitehall, but first she would have to lead herself. Harris began moving up through the ranks and landed on varsity where she began talking to herself during races and leading up to them.
The thoughts were a steady stream of concerns that she would go through on her checklist. “Are my knees going up? Are my elbows in? Am I focusing externally?”
“When it gets really hard, I talk to myself,” Harris said. “I really focus on what I can do in the moment. If I get negative, I know I just won’t race as well.”
Harris admits she didn’t know what she was doing as a freshman. In the beginning, she would get nervous or too excited, which forced her to find a medium where she would try not to think about the race until two hours leading up to the meet.
A leader of Vikings
As the only senior girl running on varsity this year, Harris can’t help but mention her other teammates.
Harris has a trickle-down effect when it comes to the rest of the Whitehall girls cross country team. Outside of earning a higher spot for the team’s overall finish, it’s what she does during practice that makes Hector smile.
She pushes the pace, getting others around her to run harder in return. As a result, Whitehall now has five runners who can break the 19-minute mark.
“For four years, every single practice and nearly every single race, Jessica was in front,” Hector said. “These girls were used to seeing her back. She knows the courses and she knows the reps and has just set the bar really high.”
Hector said Whitehall was in a rebuilding stretch for a while before Harris ran for the Vikings. Entering her senior year, Whitehall has been in contention at nearly every invitational this season.
Come next fall, Harris will be presented with a Hall of Fame plaque and her name will be added to the growing list at the back of Hector’s classroom. With Harris’ name on the wall, she can continue to inspire and push her teammates for years to come.
“Those used to be just legends and names,” Harris said. “Now (her teammates) know what a legend looks like in real life.”
(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Dec. 3, 2014)