By Jeremy Hoeck
VERMILLION — A family emergency brought Tyrell Harper to Vermillion High School.
And if there is such a thing as a blessing in disguise, the Tanager boys’ basketball program is glad the 6-foot-6 athletic wing player made the move.
Harper, a native of Florida, arrived in Vermillion last summer to help take care of his older brother Deandre Thomas, who had been suffering heart problems. Harper’s middle brother is 15 years old, which left Harper with a “hard decision.”
“When my brother got sick, I knew I had to come up here,” Harper said after a home game last week.
Suddenly, Harper went from Seminole High School in Sanford, FL, with an enrollment over 3,000 students to Vermillion High School with just under 1,300 students in the entire school district.
Talk about a culture change.
“Coming up here, I knew it would be tough, but I didn’t know it would be this tough,” Harper said.
So far, though, he is adjusting quite well. Through 11 games, Harper is averaging 11.9 points, 9.4 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 2.2 steals for the Tanagers.
Though Harper maintains the style Vermillion uses isn’t too different from his previous school, there is naturally an athleticism disparity.
“I haven’t been to Florida, but I would bet Florida high school basketball is a lot different than South Dakota,” Vermillion head coach Jay Drake joked.
“I think he saw that early on, trying to adjust the way the game’s going to be called. He’s just steadily improved each game.”
Although the Tanagers were winning right out of the gate this season, it took a while for Harper to find his rhythm.
“My first game, it was crazy, I was playing to the crowd and not my game,” Harper said.
“My teammates are a big reason why I’m having success,” he added. “I just do what I have to do to help the team.”
The Tanagers would have likely been a contender without the athletic Harper. But with him, they’re a legitimate state tournament threat — they would need to first get through a competitive Region 4A.
At 11-1 entering tonight’s (Tuesday) game at West Central, Vermillion leads Canton (7-2) in the region, and has suffered only a 2-point loss to Lennox.
As the season has progressed, so too has Harper, according to Drake.
“He changes our team, because he makes plays that you can’t coach,” Drake said.
The battle there, though, is finding a balance between making those ‘wow’ plays and working within the team system, Drake added.
“He’s an emotional player, and yet, with some kids it’s hard to reel them back in at times, but with him, he really refocuses and listens to coaching,” the coach said.
In only half a season with Vermillion, Harper is already getting interest from college programs. Though he has yet to make a final decision, Harper does plan to stay in the area — to stay close to family.
“I wish I would have come earlier, knowing how I’d fit into this program, but I’m satisfied with it,” he said. “That means I have one year to do what I have to do to get to state.”
Although a hot start has many people in Tanager land thinking state tournament, Harper urges caution.
“I don’t want to get too caught up in it, but I think we’re really underrated,” he said. “I guess we’ll just have to keep showing people every night that we’re a top five team.”
It’s not going to be an easy road to the State A Tournament in Sioux Falls (March 20-22), Drake said.
“Our region is pretty wide open,” he said. “The good thing is, everyone feels they have a shot, but it’ll take a lot just to advance to state.”
You can follow Jeremy Hoeck on Twitter at twitter.com/jhoeck.