Longtime assistant Jay Harper ready to lead St. Aloysius’ baseball program

Published 4:00 am Sunday, June 18, 2023

When he joined St. Aloysius’ baseball coaching staff, Jay Harper viewed it like a lot of entry level jobs — come in, do some good work, stay a couple of years and move on to the next opportunity.

That did not happen.

Harper hung around. He found a home. And now he’s got no plans to leave.

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The Vicksburg native recently received a promotion from longtime assistant to head coach of the Flashes. He’s replacing Sid Naron, who stepped down after eight seasons to focus on a job in private business.

“I just want to thank the Vicksburg Catholic School and Sid Naron who gave me this opportunity seven years ago. I had no idea this is where this would take me, but I’m glad it’s here now,” Harper said. “I’ve been here seven years now. This place is like my second home and these kids are my family.”

Harper graduated from Warren Central in 2010, played baseball at Hinds Community College for two seasons, and then drifted a bit. His baseball career ended when a walk-on tryout with Mississippi State didn’t pan out and he left the game behind while finishing his schooling.

After a year or so away, a fateful phone call brought him right back.

“Once that got away from me, that’s when I went away from the game for about a year and a half and I lost my identity. Baseball was pretty much my whole life. Once I was away from it, it hurt the heart a little bit,” Harper said. “Luckily, as soon as I graduted college (former St. Al athletic director) Mike Jones called and asked if I would be interested in becoming the pitching coach here at St. Al. It’s been everything I dreamed it would be.”

Harper joined Naron’s staff in 2017 and has been with the program ever since. The 31-year-old is also the superintendent at Sports Force Parks on the Mississippi, responsible for maintaining the facility’s fields.

Being back in baseball on two fronts, he said, has made him happy.

“We’re creatures of habit. Once baseball got back into my life after a year of not playing, it was just like I never left it,” he said. “It’s been a part of me my whole entire life. I don’t know anything other than this sport.”

Harper’s first head coaching job will involve a rebuilding effort. St. Al struggled to a 4-22 record this season and only has two seniors — pitcher Barrett Shows and outfielder Damien Reeves — returning.

Rising freshmen Keller Bradley, Max Hargrave and Walt Andrews all saw playing time this season, and a large group of seventh-graders is on deck as the future of the program. The challenge next season, though, will be to compete and win until the youth movement fully takes hold.

“Now that we’ve got the butterflies out the way, we’re hoping some of these young guys will step into newer roles and that’s only going to benefit us down the road,” Harper said. “We want to win a state championship this year, but you’ve got to think about it. Rome wasn’t built in a day and Rome is still standing to this day.”

This summer, Harper is hoping to start the process by playing doubleheaders with the 13 seventh-graders that are on the roster.

Most of the older varsity players, he said, are tied up with offseason workouts in football and basketball, which is another unique challenge at St. Al. Many students play multiple sports, so juggling schedules is a tricky task.

“With most of my kids playing multiple sports, it’s almost a voluntary practice,” Harper said. “We understand that football and basketball and the other sports are getting ready for their season, so we don’t want to interfere with them. But at the same time we want to keep them in shape to avoid injuries during the season. We only have two or three guys that are only baseball players.”

Harper added that he doesn’t mind sharing athletes with other sports. Each one, he said, helps build different character traits and that plays into his bigger goal of helping his players prepare for life after high school.

“How are these kids going to react in the real world? How can I get these kids better for the real world? That’s my main goal. How can I get them better and more prepared for the real world than I was?” Harper said. “I’m not that much older than them, but at the same time I’ve seen a lot more than they have, I’ve been there and it wasn’t that long ago so it’s still fresh on my mind.”

In the process, Harper hopes, he can lift St. Al baseball back into a championship program. The Flashes won the MHSAA Class 1A championship in 2009 and 2010 but have struggled to win in the postseason since joining the MAIS in 2015.

“I want to bring the fun back into this game of baseball and into this community,” Harper said. “I feel like this community has lost a little bit of its swagger over the past few years, and I’m hoping I can bring some of my old school and new school mentality to this team to where we can go win some ballgames and bring another state championship back to St. Al.”

About Ernest Bowker

Ernest Bowker is The Vicksburg Post's sports editor. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post's sports staff since 1998, making him one of the longest-tenured reporters in the paper's 140-year history. The New Jersey native is a graduate of LSU. In his career, he has won more than 50 awards from the Mississippi Press Association and Associated Press for his coverage of local sports in Vicksburg.

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