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South African player making new home in Tempe

POWERFUL ARM: Attacker Sarah Harris goes for a shot during practice Wednesday afternoon. This past summer the junior led her native South African team in goals at the 2009 FINA World Championships in Italy. (Photo by Kyle Thompson)

Sarah Harris took up water polo at the age of 14, and that decision has led her across the world from her hometown of Cape Town, South Africa to Tempe, Ariz.

This season, the junior attacker joined the ASU water polo team for her first year as a Sun Devil. Harris already has accumulated a water polo career full of accomplishments, and she said she hopes to succeed here at ASU.

In the summer of 2009, Harris competed for South Africa in the FINA World Championships in Rome, Italy. In five games, she was the team’s top scorer with eight goals. South Africa went on to finish 16th in the championships.

“It was awesome — the highlight of my water polo career,” Harris said. “Especially with all the politics, playing in world champs was always a dream of mine. It was amazing. If I had to quit [playing] now because of injury, I would not be upset.”

Harris’s athletic abilities extend far beyond the pool. She participated not only in water polo, but swim and dive, track and field and cross country in high school.

However, there came a time when Harris chose to focus on water polo.

“I was a big swimmer before,” Harris said. “[I] love the water, [but] it’s much more fun to play the team sport. I chose the team.”

After high school, Harris was drawn to the University of the Pacific in California. Megan Thomson, who now coaches the Pacific team, was able to see Harris compete as a member of the South Africa National team at age 17.

“I had played against her, [and] she had seen me play before,” Harris said. “It would have been a big gamble for another school to have chosen me.”

Her career at Pacific lasted only one season — a season where she became the only Pacific player to ever score more than 100 goals in a season and was the top scorer in the MPSF.

But Harris left to return home to pursue a teaching, because an education degree in the United States would not have allowed Harris to teach in her home country of South Africa.

“If I had studied education and teaching, I would not have been able to teach at home,” Harris said. “So I went to get a degree, [and] halfway through I decided I wanted to play water polo again. [ASU coach Todd Clapper and assistant coach Ryan Castle] showed interest and made it really easy to come here.”

Harris’ desire to return to the pool was the beginning of her quest to become a Sun Devil. ASU was the only option in her mind for returning to the United States and to the game she loved.

“When I played at Pacific, the MPSF tournament was here,” Harris said. “I absolutely loved Arizona. I did not even contact any other schools when I decided to come back [to playing]. If I was coming back, I was coming here.”

Clapper jumped on the chance to bring Harris to ASU.

“We did a little recruiting before Pacific, and when she left and timing was right, we talked to her about coming here,” he said. “She has been a good addition. Both her and [fellow newcomer, sophomore Annabelle Carter] fit in great. They are willing to practice at the bar we have set. They want to win and want to be good. Both work hard and have a great attitude.”

The move from Cape Town to Tempe has been successful with the help of the other players.

“I have come into a team with girls so friendly and welcome,” Harris said. “They know what it is like to be away from home.”

Even with Tempe being thousands of miles away from her home in South Africa, Harris said she enjoys Arizona and the differences it brings.

“[The] culture difference is the biggest,” Harris said. “I love the climate, the temperature in days are beautiful. It is pretty dry. There is not anything I hate about it.”

Of course, the addition of a player of Harris’ caliber excites her teammates.

“She is a really good attacking player,” junior attacker Lynlee Smith said. “It is going to be good for our team. Sarah adds another one to the equation. It will really strengthen our team, especially that side of the pool. She has a really good outside shot.”

Harris said she hopes to help her team succeed all throughout the 2010 season.

“Personally, I feel a lot of pressure,” she said. “I do not want to be complacent. I want to fulfill my role on this team. It would be awesome if we go to [the NCAA Tournament] — we have the potential.”

The past year has brought a lot of change for Sarah Harris: a new home, a new country and new teammates and coaches, but the game she loves remains the same.

And in the end, Harris is confident that she made the right choice to be a Sun Devil.

“It has definitely been positive,” she said. “I have been more mature, and I have not really wanted to go home. I have been really happy.”

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