A'Lexus Harrison made a decision after her freshman year at Digital Harbor that would mold her high school basketball experience much differently than the careers of her peers. She committed to Maryland.
While others her age were still wading through the recruiting process, Harrison was working to shape her game to Maryland's style and to live up to the potential that Terps coach Brenda Frese saw in her as an exceptionally versatile and athletic 14-year-old.
To Harrison, now a 6-foot-1 senior All-Metro forward-guard with more than 1,000 career points and 1,000 career rebounds, accepting Frese's scholarship offer did not mark the culmination of her hard work. It was just the beginning.
"Committing so early, I had no choice but to work hard, because once you commit, everyone's always out to get you like, 'Well, what was so good about her game that they offered her early?' Now I have to work hard and make progress in my game, so the school doesn't feel like they made a mistake," said Harrison, who averages 12 points and 10 rebounds for the No. 5 Rams (10-1) as they prepare to host No. 11 City today at 5:15 p.m.
Some mornings, Harrison, 17, watches the sun rise over the Inner Harbor while working out in the Digital Harbor weight room. Other days, she's in the gym at 5:30 a.m. running sprints or working on her jump shot under the watchful eye of Rams coach Patrick McDonald, who provides before-dawn transportation.
"I told her, 'I'm not going to knock on the door, I'm not going to blow the horn. I'm just going to flash the lights, which means you need to be sitting by the window,' and she never missed a one," McDonald said of the early workouts. "Hard work, sacrifice and commitment, coupled with her desire to achieve and her athleticism just really were jumping off the page, even when she first got here."
When Harrison arrived at Digital Harbor, she had only played two years of organized basketball — a very late start for a player now bound for a major Division I program. She preferred football as a little girl, playing quarterback for the Arbutus youth team coached by her father, Loquann Harrison.
At 10 or 11, she realized that she wouldn't be able to play football much longer. The boys were getting too much bigger and stronger, so, a big Kobe Bryant fan, Harrison switched to basketball.
There was just one problem.
"I tried out for two or three teams and nobody wanted me," Harrison said.
Then, Maryland Lady Comets coach Kalin Wynn saw her.
"I saw the athleticism," Wynn said. "At 11 years old, she could touch the rim already and I knew at that point, she doesn't even have to be able to do anything else. With that athletic ability, we can teach her to play basketball. Within a year, she was the best player on the team, and when she came to us, she couldn't even make a layup."
Although she also played with the Maryland Belles and the Philadelphia Belles last summer, Harrison stuck with the Lady Comets Amateur Athletic Union team after Wynn took a chance on her. She was playing with them at a national tournament in the summer of 2010 when the Terps staff spotted her. Frese said her athleticism was far superior to anyone else on the court.
"You would watch her go up for a rebound, secure it and take it coast to coast, go past her opponent and be able to lay it up," Frese said. "You see her impact the game in so many areas. She'll come down the floor and turn the ball over, someone strips her, and then she goes back and blocks the shot. From one end of the floor to the other, just the speed that she can transition is amazing."
Harrison, who has a wall in her bedroom devoted to Maryland women's basketball, decided she wanted to be a Terp when the Lady Comets visited Comcast Center for a Maryland game when she was 12. In August 2010, before she started her sophomore year of high school, Harrison and her parents, along with Wynn, made an unofficial visit to College Park to meet with Frese.
Before they left home, her parents and coaches discussed with her the possibility of Frese making a scholarship offer. Harrison agreed that if an offer came, she would hold off on making a commitment.
"Well, that didn't happen," Harrison said. "They were showing me around, showing me the gym and I'm like, 'I think this is where I want to go.'"
When Frese made the offer, Harrison jumped at it. She has never second-guessed that decision, even when other coaches continued to try to recruit her.
In November, Harrison signed a national letter of intent to play for the Terps.
"Coach McDonald and I had conversations about [committing so early]," Harrison said, "and he asked me all the time, 'Are you still sure you want to go there?' and I'm like, 'Yes!' Everybody picked their school late, but that was my dream come true, because I was young, saying I wanted to go to the University of Maryland, so when the chance came, I was like, 'Thank you. This is exactly where I want to be.'"
Her mother, Kimberly Harrison, who played five years of professional basketball in Italy, never worried that the commitment came too early.
Her parents saw the self assurance and maturity in a daughter who had always set goals, worked hard and achieved them.
Harrison applies the same determination in the classroom, where she has a 4.03 GPA and has made the principal's honor roll every semester of high school.
"Her mind was set from the first time the coaches took us to the Maryland game," Kimberly Harrison said. "She said, 'Oh Mom, wouldn't it be nice if I could play on this floor one day?' That was when Kristi Toliver and them were there and A'Lexus just kept talking about it. I said, 'OK. If that's your dream, do it,' but at 12, they've got a lot of dreams.
"Then one day in her 10th-grade year, she said to me, 'I told you I was going to play on that floor.'"