From NPA to NAU, Harris fitting in well in new coaching position with Lumberjacks

ERIC NEWMAN Sun Sports Editor

TJ Harris feels at home with the Northern Arizona women’s basketball team.

The assistant coach, hired before the 2022-23 season, has fit in well with the Lumberjacks. But having spent multiple years in Flagstaff in the past, and having roots in the city, the job felt like a perfect situation.

“It’s been great. Being a part of this program, and how coach (Loree) Payne runs it, and my development as a coach, has been phenomenal. And being in a familiar space makes everything a lot easier there,” Harris said.

Notably, Harris coached the Northland Prep Academy Spartans girls and boys basketball teams from 2017 to 2020. He played at the University of Great Falls (now the University of Providence) from 2011 to ’15, before coming over to teach chemistry at NPA, while also pursuing his master’s degree at Northern Arizona and coaching both high school teams.

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Northland Prep’s athletic director, Mike Elder, remembers Harris as a young, bright-eyed teacher who simply volunteered during his interview for the chemistry job that he might be able to help out with the basketball program.

Elder had just hired another girls basketball coach ahead of the 2017 season, and he introduced him to Harris. After a brief conversation, the new hire told Elder that Harris should take over the job, noting his enthusiasm and knowledge of the game. Simultaneously, Harris took over the boys coaching spot, too.

Elder said he was not surprised when, after three successful years, Harris became an assistant basketball coach at Chandler-Gilbert Community College for a season.

Elder said he “always knew (Harris) was destined for greater things.”

“He was so organized as an individual. He was a fantastic chemistry teacher and an excellent coach for the two basketball teams. And I think they relate to each other,” Elder said.

Harris went on to an assistant coaching position with the Portland State Vikings women’s basketball team for the 2021-22 season. Several members of the Northland Prep coaching staff, and even a few basketball players, went to the Walkup Skydome on Feb. 17, 2022, as the Vikings played the Lumberjacks in Flagstaff.

In Portland, Harris gained experience in the Big Sky Conference. He also got to know Payne a bit.

The connection, though, began at a recruiting event in the offseason. Payne and Harris happened to sit next to each other, and spent a few minutes talking about all things basketball and Flagstaff.

When Northern Arizona lost a couple members of its coaching staff following the end of the spring of 2022, Harris appeared a solid fit.

“He obviously had a great reputation in Flagstaff, and when a position opened and I was thinking about how I wanted to change my staff, he was someone who kind of made the short-list, and we’re really happy to have him, Payne said.

She’s enjoyed the results so far.

“He just has a great positive energy about him. He’s passionate about the game, and obviously was a great player. The energy he brings to our team is something that has definitely enhanced our program,” Payne said.

Harris remembers his wife crying happy tears when he told her he’d secured the position in Flagstaff. The opportunity to coach a team coming off a run to the championship game in March’s Big Sky Conference tournament, with its eyes set to return, in a town with family around, was perfect.

The Lumberjacks are playing well, too. They hold a record of 11-10 overall, and their 5-3 mark in Big Sky play is the same as last year’s start to the conference season despite a revamped roster and staff.

Now, Harris is settled in and is working primarily with the Lumberjacks defense. Several times this season, Payne has said the team has the most top-to-bottom athleticism in their tenure. Harris’s goal, he said, is to let the players play their own style of defense, however that looks.

“I just want them to want to play defense. That’s the biggest thing with me. If you have the desire, you can do it any style you want. We have the athletes that can make things happen, so I’m not telling them just one way to do things, as long as they make plays,” he said.

The Lumberjacks have 10 games remaining in the regular season, starting with a road contest at Northern Colorado Saturday.

They are looking toward the future, including hopefully another conference tournament run. But, to this point, Harris has enjoyed his short tenure.

“It’s been 11 out of 10. I’ve loved it,” Harris said.

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