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Hills West's Harris flexing his muscles on the court -- literally

Hills West's Tobias Harris shoots for two from

Hills West's Tobias Harris shoots for two from the free throw line during an 83-41 win over at Eastport-South Manor. Photo Credit: Photo by Joseph D. Sullivan

In the jumble of mix-and-match T-shirts and gym shorts - mostly in the school colors of red and white - that Half Hollow Hills West players wear to practice, one piece of apparel stands out. It's the form-fitting white sleeveless jersey worn by Tobias Harris that shows off the 6-8 senior's sculpted upper body, the result of more than a year of intense training. The sharpshooter has a new set of guns.

"His physical features are amazing," said Hills West coach Bill Mitaritonna, for whom Harris played on the varsity as an eighth-, ninth- and 10th-grader before transferring to Long Island Lutheran for his junior season.

Now that Harris is back at his hometown high school, Mitaritonna sees a different player. Harris was always a high scorer - earning Newsday All-Long Island honors as a sophomore at Hills West and as a junior at Lutheran - but despite being taller than most opponents, he seemed content to dominate from the perimeter and avoid low-post, high-contact action.

That's no longer the case. Now Harris espouses the Big Bang Theory. He still flashes ballhandling and passing skills, as well as three-point shooting range. But he's most dynamic going to the basket for resounding dunks, absorbing contact to finish with floaters in the lane, and controlling the boards with his size, strength and leaping ability.

"The work he did at speed school has transformed him into a top-10 player in the nation," Mitaritonna said of the Tennessee-bound Harris. "He's bigger. He's stronger. He jumps higher. The sky's the limit for Tobias."

He began reaching for the sky about a year and a half ago when he signed with trainer Britton Kelley of the Parisi Speed School in Islip. At the time, Harris was considered a little soft at 225 pounds. Kelley worked him hard and turned him hard.

"I worked with Britton on my ballhandling, shooting, strength and conditioning," said Harris, who still goes to the Parisi school five days most weeks, after regular high school practice. "I lost 15 pounds and gained a couple of inches on my vertical. Then I gained back most of the weight and I'm more explosive."

"It's all muscle," said Mitaritonna, who faces a daily puzzle on how to use his primary weapon. Does he play Harris on the low blocks, where he would be virtually unstoppable against most Long Island competition? Or, with a nod to where Harris will play at the next level - he projects as a small forward or shooting guard in college and the NBA - does Mitaritonna tap into those ever-evolving perimeter skills?

"It'll be a game-by-game situation," the coach said. "For the most part, we'll run the dribble-drive offense, where he'll be able to handle the ball outside and distribute because teams will focus on him. But if we see a situation where he would dominate down low, that's how we'll use him."

Kelley watched from the stands at Eastport-South Manor when Harris did a little of everything in the Colts' 83-41 opening-night victory. He scored 21 points, including a couple of thunderous dunks, and grabbed 15 rebounds. Made some nice passes, too, especially on the break.

"Now he's a good athlete, not just a good shooter. He's playing above the rim," said Kelley, who first hooked up with Harris in the fall of 2008 after Harris tore ligaments in his ankle and missed 12 Lutheran games.

The rigorous rehabilitation reshaped Harris' body. Said Kelley, "He brought his body fat down to about 8 percent. He made great strides in his vertical leap and speed with explosive weight training and speed-specific conditioning."

Harris was so grateful to Kelley that on the night in November when he made his nationally televised announcement that he was attending Tennessee, he sent his trainer a text message saying, "I couldn't have done it without you."

With his college decision behind him, Harris appears relaxed and clearly is having more fun on the court. For a couple of years, it was all about questions and destinations. Would he stay at West or transfer to Lutheran? Would he stay at Lutheran or transfer back to West? What college would he pick?

"Now I can just focus on the season and winning a state championship," said Harris, who did that with Lutheran last season but is well aware that the Colts have never gone to Glens Falls.

"Yes, it's definitely a big motivation," he said. But Harris welcomes those great expectations because he's not facing them alone. His younger brother Tyler, a fast-improving junior with a deadly shooting touch, also transferred from Lutheran.

Then in late summer, dynamic point guard Tavon Sledge transferred from St. Benedict's of Newark. Sledge adds athleticism in the form of a 40-inch leap on a 5-9 frame, plus the skills to distribute the ball to a deep team that returns five players who started most of last season.

"We have a lot of talent here," said Harris, who is on pace to become Long Island's 11th 2,000-point career scorer but says he isn't the same player he was in his first go-round at Hills West.

"I'm definitely more versatile,'' he said. "I'm more of a team player now. I'll be doing multiple things - going inside, going outside. My goal is to get everyone involved and get the team up there to Glens Falls. I know what it takes. They don't need me to score 40 points a game."

They just need him to flex those muscles in crunch time.

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