By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
Mike Carey had been recruiting a lot of years at Salem and West Virginia University, stretching all the way back to 1989, but he’d never seen numbers like the ones that were on his desk the day he began recruiting Jess Harlee out of Baltimore.
She had scored 1,086 points with 816 rebounds in a three-year career at Fallston High, playing for consecutive Maryland state champion teams, but Carey was accustomed to seeing those kind of things in his recruits.
There were other numbers, though, that simply blew his mind and that he wasn’t sure he was ready for.
“I can remember when looking at her test scores,” the coach of the nation’s No. 12 women’s basketball team recalled the other day. “I don’t remember if it was the SAT or the ACT, but it was so high I was amazed.”
His worry was how he was going to be able to handle someone like that.
“I told her in front of her parents if she uses words that I don’t understand I’m going to consider them cuss words,” he said. “If I don’t understand what you say, that’s not going to be good, so just use common words to me.”
And that is pretty much what Harlee has done right up until now, a degree in industrial engineering already hers and down to her final games of college basketball.
Her career has been a success. She was named a captain as early as her sophomore year.
“I can’t remember in the 11 years I’ve been here having a sophomore captain,” Carey noted.
But there was never a doubt in his mind, considering the way she approached basketball, academics and life.
“She’s the one who does all the little things for us,” he said. “You have someone on the floor who brings energy.”
When she’s on the floor, she’s usually really on the floor, diving after loose balls, causing havoc with an opponent’s offense.
“Ever since I was little I’ve always gone on the floor. My coaches have said I need a butt pad, an elbow pad. I don’t think twice when I have to dive for the ball,” she said.
A year ago, although suffering an ACL injury in the final regular-season game at Texas Tech, she was huge to Carey’s Mountaineers as she was named to the Big 12 all-defensive team, ranking second on WVU in steals and blocked shots while averaging only 18.9 minutes per game.
And this year she’s come back from the ACL to provide the same thing to a team that is in contention for a Big 12 title, something she has never earned and is determined to get.
The way she has been able to marry her basketball and academics has been incredibly impressive, for majoring in industrial engineering is serious business.
“I’d say basketball was a larger part of my time than academics are,” she said. “They both mean a lot. Academics I’m most worried about, doing well and getting good grades.”
But academics just came easier and didn’t require the time put in that basketball did, what with practice and travel.
Last year, as the Mountaineers moved into the Big 12, it became a real battle. Being her junior year, the classes were at their hardest and the travel at its toughest.
Everyone was worn to a frazzle by the travel demands. It was bad enough that the conference made some concessions to WVU’s schedule such as allowing it to stay out on the road on some three-day trips rather than having to fly home and cutting down on the 8 p.m. night games which got them home later than necessary.
“The professors were very understanding and helped me a lot,” Harlee said. “A lot of friends kept notes for me. We did a lot of group projects, so they let me know what I was missing.”
They all must have done a pretty good job of keeping her up because, for the second consecutive year, she was named WVU’s Industrial Engineering Student of the Year.
Have they ever had anyone win that award three straight times?
“I have no idea … but I hope so, of course,” she said. “I do know of one girl who went through and got a 4.0 in industrial engineering.”
“Probably the most upset I’ve ever seen her was when she came up to my office one time because she made a B on a test,” Carey said. “So I said, ‘Why are you upset?’ She said, ‘I made a B.’
“I told her I’d have been happy,” Carey continued. “She doesn’t like to do anything but her best.”
And that is in everything, something she got from her mother and father, Mary and James Harlee, former athletes at South Florida.
As you might expect, Harlee is ready to move on into the real world.
“I’ve already got a job so it could be that my last basketball game here will be my last basketball game,” she said.
And that is pushing her even harder.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel