April 29, 2014

Challenges met

Hard work pays off for SE’s Harper

Since he was very young, Southeast Whitfield High School senior Rhett Harper has often had a ball in his hand, with another game to play or a practice somewhere on his calendar.

With the Raiders, Harper was a year-round contributor, playing football in the fall, basketball in the winter and baseball in the spring. He was a four-year starter in baseball and football, and he said he stuck with basketball as long as he did because his mother Tammy always loved to watch him play.

With his focus now turning solely to the diamond for college, his mother and his father Anthony will have to travel a little farther to see their son play.

After receiving offers from colleges to play both football and baseball, Harper signed a baseball scholarship with Atlanta’s Georgia State University on Monday night at Southeast.

“Baseball has always been my first love,” said the 6-foot-3, 195-pound Harper, who played in the outfield when he wasn’t pitching for the Raiders this season. “It has been part of my entire life, and it seems like from February to August every year since I was a little kid, baseball has always been there. As much money and time as has been put into it, it is good to see it paying off now.”

Harper will receive an athletic scholarship covering 25 percent of his tuition, with the remainder covered by the Hope Scholarship. Georgia State is an NCAA Division I school and a member of the Sun Belt Conference. The Panthers are 21-24 overall and 7-14 in the conference this season, their eighth under coach Greg Frady.

Harper is one of four signees this spring for Georgia State, adding to the seven who signed in the fall. Harper was one of three outfielders signed by the Panthers, along with North Atlanta’s Will Johnson and Grady’s Luke Leonard.

“The three outfielders all have good size, they run well and they’re physical,” Frady said in a release from the program. “Each one brings skills that can help our team.”

Harper’s journey to putting pen to scholarship paper wasn’t an easy one considering what Harper had to endure during his junior year. In the next-to-last game of the season against Dalton, Harper tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. He missed the entire basketball season and most of the baseball season. When he returned, he was used strictly as a designated hitter, with a teammate pinch-running for him if he reached base.

“With him missing his junior year and still being able to bounce back, it is a huge accomplishment,” Southeast coach Brad Lofton said. “He is a stud. To be able to come back with two weeks left in the season as a junior, and just to help the team hit was big and it speaks a lot to his character and his work ethic and what being part of the team means to him. He works extremely hard, and he deserves every opportunity he gets. He put in the time and the work.”

When he was given total medical clearance, Harper spent more and more time on the baseball field over the summer. Playing in the East Cobb Baseball League in Marietta, he earned honorable mention for the Southeast Region from the scouting service Perfect Game, and he was also named to the all-tournament team in the Perfect Game BCS (metal bat division) finals. He earned those honors as a pitcher for the East Cobb Longhorns, although he’s expected to be in the outfield for Georgia State.

Harper returned to the gridiron as a senior and earned his fourth selection to The Daily Citizen’s All-Area Football Team after playing multiple position for the Raiders over the years. He was named to The Daily Citizen’s All-Area Basketball Team as a guard this past season as well. He was an All-Area Baseball Team member as a sophomore.

This season, Harper started in center field and was the team’s ace as Southeast went 15-12 for the second-most wins in program history, Lofton said. Harper was 8-2 with a 2.62 ERA, allowing 46 hits with 61 strikeouts in 55 innings of work. He batted .513 with six homers, a triple, 11 doubles, 34 RBIs and 25 runs scored in 26 games.

While accolades have been plentiful for Harper at Southeast, team wins have been much harder to come by. The Raiders haven’t had a winning record in football or basketball the past four seasons, and this year’s winning baseball season followed records of 9-17 (2013), 6-19 (2012)  and 7-18 (2011).

But facing adversity has made him a better competitor, Harper said.

“It created a thought within me that you can’t always have it your way and you can only control what you can control,” Harper said. “You have to deal with the adversity. In that, you become closer with your teammates and it bonds you together in relationships that last forever.”

Harper had plenty of options when it came to college athletics. Academically accepted to both the University of Georgia and the University of Mississippi, he considered walking on to play baseball at either of those schools had the opportunity at Georgia State not presented itself. He had offers to play baseball at North Carolina’s Brevard College, Bryan College (Dayton, Tenn.) and Georgia Highlands College in Rome. He had offers to play football at Rome’s Berry College, Birmingham (Ala.) Southern College, Morehead (Ky.) State University and the University of Saint Mary (Leavenworth, Kan.), where Easton Ridley, a friend and former Southeast teammate, is playing football.

“At one point, I was going to go to Kansas and play with Easton again,” Harper said. “But Georgia State stepped in, and I was really impressed with them when I went to visit. They are right downtown in Atlanta, and the campus has grown tremendously. The dorms were great and the field looks great. They take care of their players and treat them right, so I really liked what I saw.”

Harper, who’s from Chatsworth, said he is excited about the feel of being in a bustling metropolis like Atlanta.

“I am looking forward to the big campus life,” he said. “They have a 30,000 enrollment, and living on my own is a little different and getting to play at another level is my big challenge. All the work, time, blood, sweat and tears eventually pay off and I am looking forward to getting all of that experience, and challenging myself and seeing how I stack up.”

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