NORMAN – Adversity is as much a part of sport as uniforms, cleats or balls. It besets every team and player at some point in a season and, as often as not, it defines seasons, athletes and even programs.
Oklahoma senior Andrew Harris has seen his share of adversity. As a junior in his native Melbourne, Australia, Harris was one of the top junior tennis players in the world, with an eye set squarely on a dream of playing professional tennis. But adversity would delay that dream and create a new one for Harris. One that has paid dividends for Oklahoma men's tennis.
Harris suffered a back injury at age 15 that sidelined him from the game for 18 months. When a second back injury occurred at age 17, college tennis offered Harris a way to get healthy and fit, while also pursuing a degree.
When Oklahoma signed the young Aussie it got a player of immense talent. As a freshman in 2014, Harris racked up a record of 20-5 in singles and was named the ITA Rookie Player of the Year. With the youngster playing at such a high level Oklahoma soared up the rankings and achieved No. 1 status for the first time in program history. The Sooners won the Big 12 Championship and at the 2014 NCAA Championships, they ran all the way to the NCAA finals, the program's best finish, before falling to traditional power USC.
"There's an expectation of winning here and he's instilled that in these younger guys.”
- Head Coach Nick Crowell
A year later Harris won 18 singles matches and achieved a career-high singles ranking of No. 5 nationally. After another Big 12 title and NCAA finals run for Oklahoma, Harris was named the 2015 ITA National Player to Watch, given annually to a player expected to be the best in college tennis the following year. He also earned All-America status in singles.
But injuries would resurface for Harris and his junior year was derailed.
“I had a knee injury while I was here that kept me out for 10 months,” Harris said. “I never got to surgery, but I had a lot of injections and procedures and other things. It was frustrating. I was doing constant rehab every day. Core strengthening, glute strengthening. I feels like I have been doing some sort of rehab since I was 16. Even now I'm rehabbing two or three things just to make sure they don't recur.”
Harris missed the vast majority of the 2016 season but was able to make a return for the 2016 NCAA Championships in Tulsa. The Sooners, who had drawn the No. 11 seed for the tournament, arrived in Tulsa with a difficult draw, but as one of the most dangerous teams in the tournament. OU rattled off upsets of No. 6 Wake Forest, No. 3 UCLA and No. 7 Georgia en route to a third straight NCAA finals appearance. With Harris back on the roster, Oklahoma was again one of the best teams in college tennis.
Harris (center, white cap) rushes the courts with his teammates in celebration of OU's final four win over UGA in the 2016 NCAA Championships.
After 2016, Harris decided he was ready to chase his goal of professional tennis. After battling through the NCAA Championships he had made his decision and was set to leave OU. But injury struck again.
“I was pretty upset after that because I had decided to leave OU and go pro and I found out right when I was about to start playing that I had this bad injury,” Harris said. “I was really upset, but I thought it was best to come back for my senior year and get my degree and get fit and healthy.”
The grind of recovery has been far from easy.
“It's really tough,” Harris said. “It's a lot of exercise and it's really repetitive so it can be really boring in the gym. You wake up and you have to go rehab before you can even work out. I've done a good job with it but it's been a grind. I've just been really focused on my dreams of being a professional tennis player so that's helped me.”
"We've been so close that I think all the guys are really hungry to go and try for one more. We're definitely really hungry."
- Andrew Harris
2017 has been almost a repeat for Harris and Oklahoma. Just like a year ago, he missed the majority of the regular season, but has fought back to be ready to battle with his teammates in the postseason. The Sooners enter the round of 16 of the NCAA Championships in Athens, Ga., as the tournament's No. 14 overall seed, again facing a daunting road to the finals. But with the lineup at full strength, Oklahoma is again perhaps the most dangerous team on the bracket.
“His level of play is very high so as soon as he walks on the court I think everyone respects his game,” said first-year head coach Nick Crowell. “No matter who we are playing against, he brings a high level of intensity and leadership. He has high expectations for this team and the program. We're glad to have that back.”
“I think he overall changes the whole dynamic of the team,” said freshman Adrian Oetzbach. “Every guy moves down in the lineup and he is just a huge addition in doubles and in singles. With him we are a dangerous team for the NCAA Tournament.”
It isn't just prodigious tennis talent that OU gets back in Harris. It is also years of experience, confidence and leadership.
“He is always fighting,” Crowell explained. “The guys always see him competing. He never gives up on a point or a match. He is always running down balls and making plays. He's vocal on the courts. He yells for his teammates and himself and he brings a fire. There's an expectation of winning here and he's instilled that in these younger guys.”
The Sooners pose in front of the scoreboard after their regional final win over Mississippi State. Oklahoma has advanced to the sweet 16 in five consecituve seasons.
When Oklahoma takes the court for its round-of-16 match against No. 3 Ohio State Thursday morning at the Dan Magill Tennis Complex it will do so as more than a 14-seed. It will do so as one of the most experience and battle-tested teams in the country, ready to make a deep run. Ready to take it one step further.
“We have a team that can do really well if we all play well at the right time,” Harris said. “Three finals in a row is tough--just dying to get that last match. We've been so close that I think all the guys are really hungry to go and try for one more. We're definitely really hungry.”
“It's one match at a time,” Crowell said with a smile. “You have to continue to play big and want the moment. You just have to get over that hurdle at the very end.”
One match at a time. Just like each of the last three years.
It all begins Thursday versus Ohio State.