UMC freshman guard setting the bar high on the court
Two summers ago, Dan Weisse heard of a standout player from the suburbs of Milwaukee.
University of Minnesota Crookston men’s basketball assistant coach Bryan Beamish, who first saw him play, informed Weisse of an Oak Creek, Wis. player in the Amateur Athletic Union basketball circuit that could possibly fit in well with the Golden Eagles program.
That player turned out to be a young man named Harrison Cleary.
"A lot of teams were looking at him pretty closely, but we were sold on him," Weisse, who is in his third year at the helm of UMC men's basketball, said. "We wanted him in our program. We thought he could be a big, big piece. He's just pretty good a little bit earlier than I thought, which is great."
A starting member as a freshman on the Oak Creek varsity squad, Cleary was made a team captain his sophomore year. As a junior, Cleary shot 51 percent from the field and 81.5 percent from the free-throw line, leading him to average 20.1 points-, 4.7 rebounds- and 2.1 assists-per-game. That same year, Cleary was named a First Team All-Suburban player.
In his senior and final year, Harrison tallied 19.5 points-per-game, which ultimately led to him being the all-time leading scorer and second all-time in assists at Oak Creek.
Additional accolades his senior year included being named a Preseason All-State selection, SEC Player of the Year, All-State Honorable Mention and two-time First Team All-Southeast Conference pick.
Along with playing at Oak Creek, Cleary played for the Playground Elite Nike EYBL team. Throughout his years of playing ball, Cleary has played with other star players, including De'Aaron Fox (point guard at Kentucky) and Jayson Tatum (small forward at Duke).
“When we go watch basketball, we watch a lot of different things,” Weisse said. “You watch obviously how good a kid is and we obviously thought (Cleary) had a lot of talent.
“But in particular you watch how they react with their teammates, how they interact with their coach, how they handle certain situations. Do they argue with refs or do they just hand the official the ball and go down on the next possession. So overall body language we watch quite a bit.”
Weisse liked what he saw in the 6-foot-1 player that he scheduled a home visit with Cleary, his parents and Oak Creek basketball coach Mike Jossie.
“The first initial thought is that this is a great family,” Weisse said. “For me as a coach, I felt extremely comfortable. I think we were all on the same page and have the same values. I think we had an understanding of what we’re all trying to accomplish together and the thing that was neat is his dad just knew that what we were offering his son was an opportunity.
“Going into that visit I wanted (Harrison) to play at Crookston. Coming out of that visit I wanted him to play even more.”
What really stuck out to Weisse about Cleary from others was the work ethic he displayed.
"We try to recruit good people," Weisse said. "Everything in our checklist from being a good basketball player, being a good student and being a high-character person, those were the three things and he checked them off the list."
Cleary’s father, Mike, who moved with his family to the Milwaukee suburbs nine years ago, recalls the countless hours his youngest of four children put into his game.
“For lack of any other word, Harrison's always been obsessed with the game," Mike said. "I'm not sure exactly what got him to the point of being so obsessed with the game but he's always been. It’s always been about being on the floor. He always wants to be on the floor and he wants to make a difference.”
Harrison remembers having a ball in his hands since he was about two-years-old. When he was six, he got into organized basketball.
He started playing seriously when he was nine and playing in the AAU.
When he was around the seventh or eighth grade, Cleary was involved in local tournaments that would have morning and afternoon games.
“Most kids would go home and play video games or watch TV,” Mike Cleary said. “There’s Harrison out in the driveway. I’d have to go out and say ‘Dude, you have a game in three hours. Just hang out for a while.’ ‘No, no, I gotta work on my shot.’ That’s the way he’s always been.”
In 10 years of traveling around the country, Mike hardly, if ever, missed his son’s games.
“For a while, it was just him and I traveling together, staying in hotels, flying around,” Mike Cleary said. “We had a grand old time for years.”
As "obsessed" as Harrison Cleary was with basketball, he was as fully committed to his academics. When he graduated from high school, Mike Cleary thinks he finished with a 3.85 or 3.9 GPA.
"He's always been good in school," Mike said. "School always came easy to him actually."
During the recruiting process, Harrison said his other main choice was South Carolina-Aiken, another Division II school near the east coast.
“(Coach Weisse) was the only coach to (visit me at home) out of all the ones that recruited me so that was definitely a positive and I guess a turning point maybe,” Cleary said. “He talked a lot about the great things here and that helped with my decision."
Along with the idea of getting the opportunity to play basketball, Harrison Cleary said the other piece that stuck out to him about UMC was the academic degree.
"Getting the Minnesota degree while being on the Crookston campus is definitely a cool thing." Cleary said.
But with the UMC being 10.5 hours away from his hometown of Oak Creek, his parents are unable to come to every game like they used to, but will watch the games online when they can.
“(Distance from home) wasn’t a huge thing,” Cleary added. “I told a lot of coaches that when they recruited me that distance wasn’t a problem. I’d play wherever just to be able to play college basketball. I guess it’s not ideal being 10 hours away from home but it’s alright. We make it work.”
“I miss watching him certainly,” Mike Cleary said.
Mike and his wife, Kathleen, did travel to Crookston in early December to watch Harrison play against Minnesota State University-Moorhead and Northern State University. They also traveled to Winona when the Golden Eagles played Winona State since it was close enough to home.
Every Sunday, Harrison makes a point of talking with his parents through Skype after his workout. Every morning, he can expect a text message from his dad.
“I try to find some kind of inspirational text, sometimes it’s about life, sometimes it’s basketball driven,” Mike said. “Quotes from Mike Krzyzewski and others. Just positive stuff.”
And although he’s just a freshman, Cleary has already made a huge impact on the team, surpassing even Weisse's expectations.
"You're not going to outwork him," Weisse said. "You're just not going to. He's the hardest working kid. He loves basketball and he wants to be the best player he can be."
As much as he shines on the court, a little bit of a different story can be said about Harrison behind the scenes.
"Almost to a fault sometimes, he's extremely humble," Mike Cleary said. "His two older brothers walk around with chips on their shoulders and are very cocky, very aggressive, more like their father. Harrison is just really quiet. He just kind of goes about his business."
Weisse noted the same thing at UMC.
"He's a pretty quiet guy," Weisse said. "He keeps to himself. Very polite. Very friendly. I think he's a guy that you have to gain his trust and once you gain his trust he'll give you everything he has and more."
So far, Harrison Cleary has not disappointed. In fact, he's exceeded expectations.
He’s already broken the UMC record for most field goals made in a game. The previous record was held by Joe Hasz who scored 14 on three different occasions. Cleary scored 15 in his very first collegiate game this season against Southwest Baptist and again with 17 against Minnesota State University-Mankato.
Cleary’s also broken the school record for most points scored in a single game with 42 against Mankato. The previous record was held by Hasz who scored 40 against Wayne State College on Feb. 16, 2001 and against University of Minnesota-Morris on Feb. 15, 2003.
With just two games left in the regular season this weekend against Minot State and the University of Mary, Cleary is on track to possibly break a couple more records.
UMC’s record for most field goals made stands at 212 and most points scored in a season stands at 599, which Hasz set in the 2001-02 season. The season before, Hasz set the season record for free throws with 128.
Through all 26 games played this season, Cleary has averaged 21.5 points-per-game. He ranks second in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference with cumulative points scored this season (560) behind St. Cloud State red-shirt sophomore Gage Davis with 670. He also currently sits with 200 field goals and 117 free throws made on the season.
Cleary’s numbers can be greatly attributed to the time he’s spent on the collegiate court as he is currently ranked first in the conference in minutes played at 951.
“I guess it’s a tribute to all the work I’ve put in,” Cleary said. “I put in a crazy amount of work last summer and my whole life really because I knew it was going to be a change from the high school game to the college game especially being a freshman and undersized.
“I think its just cool to see all my hard work paying off because I think I belong here and the success is just a tribute to all the work I put in.”
But whether or not more records fall this weekend, it all takes a back seat to what Cleary would like to do for the team.
“For Harrison, or H as I call him, it’s not about records,” Mike Cleary said. “He loves the game.
“Harrison would tell you I’m sure, but he would pass up whatever records he may or may not break this year. He would pass them up if he could get that team four more wins. He would pass up any record to get those wins for the team.”
And with at least three more years of college ball ahead of him, Weisse thinks there’s even more he can accomplish and improve on.
“I absolutely do,” Weisse said. “There’s absolutely room for improvement. Some of it is just experience stuff. I’m excited about that because I think he’s only going to keep getting better.”
Before Harrison Cleary left for college to start his collegiate athletic journey, however, Mike sat his son down with some fatherly advice about only controlling what he can control.
“There’s only one person at the end of the day you really need to answer to and that’s the person you look at in the mirror,” Mike said. “As long as you can stand there and face the guy in the mirror and say ‘I’ve done everything I could.’
“If you want to be the best, if you want to score more, then you have to put more work in. You gotta find those challenges and overcome them."
Although UMC is 3-17 in the NSIC, the idea of being part of rebuilding the program with Weisse was what intrigued Harrison to wear maroon and gold.
"He liked the idea of being part of rebuilding and being part of setting something up," Mike Cleary said. "For him it'snot even about playing on the team, per se. For Harrison it's always been about 'Where can I go and make a difference?'"
The University of Minnesota Crookston Golden Eagles face off against the Minot State University Beavers Friday at 8 p.m. and the University of Mary Marauders at 6 p.m. Saturday at Lysaker Gymnasium.
“I just try to make a positive impact on the team, whichever way that was going to be,” Cleary said. “I guess right now it’s about scoring the ball hopefully leading by example.”