Victoria Harris of the University of Southern Maine goes up for a layup during a women’s basketball game. Jason Johns/USM Athletics

The Victoria Harris of Lewiston High School never would have imagined she become a person like the Victoria Harris of the University of Southern Maine.

As star basketball player for the Blue Devils, Harris mostly kept to herself while she was averaging a double-double on the court, including a monster 36-point, 19-rebound effort in a 2018 Class AA North quarterfinal game against Edward Little. 

Fast-forward few years, and Harris has become a leader on the court, she was the first junior to be team captain of the USM women’s basketball team, and an outspoken leader on important issues such as racism, social injustice and mental health, using two different committees at USM to make sure her voice is heard.

“Lewiston Victoria would just die of the thought of talking to large groups of people as much as USM Victoria does now,” Harris said. “And still, I have a lot of room to grow and speak out even more than I do now, but it has definitely been a huge jump and change.”

Last month, Harris received honorable mention recognition for the state of Maine’s John Lewis Youth Leadership Award.

Harris, who graduated from Lewiston High School in 2018, is a founding member of USM’s Student-Athlete Diversity, Inclusion and Equity Committee (SADIE) and is one of two USM student-athletes on the newly formed Maine Student Athletes of Color Committee (SAOC), through which she works in partnership with athletes at other Maine schools. 

USM women’s basketball coach Samantha Norris said Harris is a magnet who others are drawn to. Harris’ former teammate at Lewiston and then USM, Morgan Eliasen, said that Harris stepped into a leadership role last year and has a way of getting her point across kindly to teammates.

On the court, Harris averaged 13.2 points and seven rebounds during the six games the Huskies were able to play during the COVID-19 pandemic. Eliasen said that while she knew that Harris was “the best player on the court at Lewiston,” she didn’t think Harris knew it. That has changed. 

Victoria Harris, a 2018 Lewiston High School graduate, has emerged as a leader on and off the court at the University of Southern Maine. Jason Johns/USM Athletics

“In college, she realized her role more, how we as a team need her to really step into that leadership role and be one of our leading scorers,” said Eliasen, who in May received the Senior Husky Achievement Award while Harris was given the Emerging Leader Award.

Eliasen, who also played lacrosse for USM, wasn’t the only one to notice Harris’ shift. 

“Sometimes I will run into people from high school,” Harris said, “and they’ll be following the Huskies’ page and see all that I’ve been doing and accomplished, and they’re like, ‘You’re just so different now, there’s a different attitude and confidence about you, you’re just a different person.’

“I feel that, too. I’ve grown a lot and I still have a lot more room to grow, but the me before would not have thought I would do this. I probably thought I’d still be the shy, withdrawn person that goes with the flow.”

GROWING INTO HER ROLE

In high school, Harris was the leader of the Lewiston girls basketball team

In her, Norris saw raw talent with miles of room to grow at USM.

“Getting to know her, she was definitely shy and it took a little while at college to pull her out of that.” Norris said. “Early interactions showed that there was a lot to her, how she was perceiving the world, how she was playing and there was just such beauty in her game, and we were excited to see that in the next level.”

Harris said she had stepped into a leadership role at the end of her high school career there, but in her first year of college she felt weighed down by people’s expectations of her.

“I kind of stressed myself out a little bit the first year, too, trying to live up to those expectations,” Harris said.

That began to change after her freshman season with the Huskies, during which Harris averaged 8.3 points and 3.5 rebounds in only 13.6 minutes a game. 

“After my first year of college I kind of looked up and realized that I kind of wasted time not saying what needed to be said and acting on things that I knew I could have influenced more,” Harris said. “Not really that I regret it, but it opened my eyes that I need to have more of a voice and speak out on things.”

FINDING HER VOICE 

Harris has often been a player teammates look to on the court to make a play or make an important shot. She didn’t realize that people looked at her similarly off the court, as well. 

“I feel like throughout everything I always led by example,” Harris said. “I never really noticed before that people looked for me to be that example, I just did it on my own. As time went on I noticed more that people were looking to me to be a leader.”

Her teammates were patiently waiting for Harris to find also her voice off the court.

University of Southern Maine’s Victoria Harris, center, sits on the bench with teammate and fellow Lewiston High School graduate Morgan Eliasen, left, before a women’s basketball game. Jason Johns/USM Athletics

“Her and I are really good friends and so we talk a lot about these sorts of things, and I remember her saying, ‘I wish I could say these things,’” Eliasen said. “I said, ‘You can, the team wants you to talk to us.’ Even outside of police brutality and racial injustice, just holding players accountable and that sort of thing.”

Being a founding member of SADIE and joining SAOC helped Harris find her voice to speak out on issues she finds important. 

“With the climate of the world changing and racial issues and things of that sort becoming prevalent and talked about, I felt like it was my duty as a citizen belonging to USM to put my piece in and join,” Harris said.

Heading into her junior season, Harris decided she wanted to throw her name into the mix for team captain. 

The process to decide the captains wasn’t just a vote by teammates. The candidates had to interview for the role in front of their team. It proved how far Harris’ confidence had grown in the previous few years.

“We do an interview process for electing captains and she had to get out of her comfort zone to get in front of the team and say why she wanted the job and what she could bring,” Norris said. “She’s a super empathetic person and we really got to see that in her day-in and day-out work with her teammates.”

STEPPING UP IN 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic shut down many things throughout 2020 and into 2021. While that was going on, there also were new outlooks emerging in the United States regarding issues like racial injustice in America, policing and mental health. People all over the world found their voices to speak out on what they thought was right, and Harris wasn’t going to let her opportunity pass. 

“At USM she was the only Black woman on our team,” Eliasen said. “She offered a very different perspective that the rest of the team either didn’t know about or didn’t completely understand yet. Unfortunately, because she was the only black woman on the team, she was forced into that position of having to speak up. She grew into it, though, and she was kind of that outspoken leader that said things in a way that wasn’t attacking someone but still getting a point across.”

Norris said that the culture of the USM women’s basketball team is centered around love, and that Harris found a way to be honest with teammates in an empathetic way. Harris’ approach to difficult, sometimes uncomfortable topics helped an already close team come together even more.

“When she was interested and excited about being a part of SADIE, she saw a need and wanted to be a part of it, and was a part of a group of student-athletes that felt the same,” Norris said. “The conversations she helped facilitate were topics like protesting the national anthem, the Black Lives Matter movement, we talked about privilege, and essentially a lot of conversations around how each of our players have different backgrounds, how they were raised, what they know or believe to be true — and it was more just sharing those types of ideas. I feel like that was a very clear attack on our Capitol and we had discussions about that.

“Each of the classes picked a podcast they wanted the team to listen to and they would lead a discussion on those. Victoria also gravitated to some mental health discussions and helped break down some of those stigmas.”

“I felt like with those conversations, in particular, Coach Norris does a really good job of letting us lead conversations on our own,” Harris added. “When she’s not talking she expects us to jump in and say something, and a lot of the time, since these are uncomfortable situations, people are wary of wanting to jump in. But, like I said (about) joining these committees, I feel like it’s my duty to do my part. When I found no one was saying much of anything in these conversations, I found myself chiming in a lot to prompt people to speak their truth and keep the conversation flowing, because even though it is uncomfortable and it’s not really meant to be comfortable, I want people to speak their piece and talk about it because it shouldn’t be something that’s ignored.”

Norris has no trouble finding things about Harris to boast about. From being a shy freshman to letting Norris volunteer her for a simulated interview with USM’s career hub on Zoom in front of classmates and teammates, Harris has shined.

Harris appreciates that her growth hasn’t gone unnoticed.

“It feels really good that my efforts have been noticed,” Harris said. “Not just by people like my mom, who notices everything and is always on everything, but just to feel like my efforts are being validated. I mean, not that the validation even really matters, I’d still do it regardless because it’s something I need to do, but it feels good to have that.”

Both Harris and Norris expect the 2021-22 season to be a big one for Harris, who is a a senior academically but a junior athletically since all student-athletes received an eligibility waiver due to the pandemic-ridden season. 

“We’ve laid out a plan with her and showing where she is career-wise with stats and what it would take for her to reach some personal goals,” Norris said. “I think she’s going to come into this season with a new sense of urgency. Beating people up and down the floor, getting in transition for easy baskets, staying out of foul trouble, and she’s always super fun to watch with her blocked shots. Really, we are trying to have her own the boards and lead from a post player perspective.”

Harris hasn’t decided if this will be her final season on the court or not, but her legacy is already secured. 

“She found a lot of confidence and self-worth,” Norris said. “She’s more than a basketball player, she’s a leader, someone people gravitate to, she’s a magnet. I think she’s noticing that and she’s seeing that in such a good way for herself. I know it’s going to lead into a strong senior year and beyond.”


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