Harper strides into role as Vikings’ ace

Published 1:00 pm Thursday, April 29, 2010

Jay Harper spent his 2009 summer vacation turning himself into an ace.

He lifted weights. He ran, threw, then ran and threw some more. Building his body, the senior right-hander transformed himself from a pitcher who could throw a few innings into the leader Warren Central needed to change its fortunes.

After throwing a total of 14 innings in 2009, Harper has more than tripled that amount this year. He signed with Hinds Community College last Thursday, then led Warren Central to its first division championship in five years the next night.

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This Friday he’ll start Game 1 of a first-round Class 6A playoff series against DeSoto Central. It’s the capstone of a remarkable season built on hard work and determination.

“We knew he had good stuff and had an opportunity to be pushed,” WC coach Josh Abraham said. “We made his life miserable but it’s paying off now.”

Harper’s ascension to the top of WC’s pitching staff began shortly after the 2009 season ended. He started working with pitching coach Conner Douglas on a long toss and throwing program, and also worked to increase his strength.

“A lot of long tossing. I threw a lot of bullpens and got in the weight room,” Harper said. “I knew if I was going to play at the next level I had to do it this year.”

The extra work enhanced Harper’s natural ability. The fastball that topped out in the low 80s jumped to about 86 mph. He gained command of three pitches — fastball, curveball and change-up — which also helped him gain confidence in pressure situations.

“He committed to it in the offseason and worked with Coach Douglas to get command in the strike zone,” Abraham said. “His velocity is two or three miles per hour higher than last year. He’s a lot more mentally tough and the command of his pitches is much better.”

Douglas added that Harper’s best weapon isn’t the velocity, but the movement on his fastball. It runs down and in on right-handed batters, making it tough to do more than fight it off. He also gets a lot of groundouts.

In 2009, he had a 4.88 ERA and opponents hit .283 against him. This season, the ERA has been cut to 2.72 and opponents are hitting .239.

“The first time I saw him pitch I realized how much inside run he had. He can get in on a lot of hitters and jam them,” Douglas said. “He can go as far as he wants with his armside run. A lot of scouts look for that heavy sink on the fastball and he has it.”