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It always pays to make a good first impression.

Just ask former Oak Creek all-state and Now All-Suburban guard Harrison Cleary, who went north to the University of Minnesota-Crookston (as in 635 miles from home) and took the NCAA Division II men's basketball world by storm.

Cleary said he "put in a crazy amount of work in the summer and and came in with a really positive attitude," but that didn't prepare him for what happened in the Golden Eagles' first game of the season in November 2016, when he hit 15 of 22 shots for 34 points in a 73-64 victory.

It turned out that was just the warm-up for the 6-1 shooting/point guard as though the Golden Eagles struggled to an 8-21 record this winter, it was hardly Cleary's fault.

He averaged 22.1 points per game in his first season in maroon and gold. He was named All-Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference second team all-conference and NSIC Freshman of the Year after setting single-season Golden Eagle scoring records for most field goals and most free throws in a season. He also had a school-record 42 points in a win against Minnesota State University-Mankato, which snapped Joe Hasz's long-standing school mark.

Cleary is a bit surprised at his end numbers for the Golden Eagles, but not that he adapted to college ball so quickly.

"I first got an idea that I could do this when I first earned some playing time early in the season," he said. " After a few practices and scrimmages, I knew I would get the starting job. After that, I just tried to make the most of my opportunities.

"... But 22 points a game? I just couldn't have expected that amount of success," he said. "I was confident, but this is all surreal."

The awards have kept rolling in post-season.

Cleary was among 10 freshmen who were recognized as members of the Division II Bulletin All-Freshman team, and he was also recognized nationally by two publications after being named Hero Sports Division 2 Newcomer of the Year in March.

The Newcomer of the Year award was decided in a nationwide vote where the top five newcomers were selected and eligible to receive votes for the award. Cleary was declared as the best newcomer out of all NCAA Division II schools by the online website.

Minnesota-Crookston fans were clearly biased in favor of Cleary, who won in a decisive manner, bringing home 641 votes (43.7 percent). Placing second was Corey Tillery of Armstrong State University with 23.3 percent.

"It is always great to see one of your guys get recognized for their efforts," said Crookston coach Dan Weisse in a release from the school. "Harrison had a great first year. But it is also something he can build off of. This recognition in particular is pretty neat because it is a national thing. He puts himself on the map as well as our great university. I am very happy for Harrison, for his teammates, and cannot wait for the next season to come."

Another person not surprised by his success is Cleary's former teammate and 2016-17 Now All-Suburban forward Drew Yetka, who was one of those people Cleary worked out with the previous summer.

"Harrison has worked for everything he has ever gotten," said Yetka. "Everyone who once doubted him is now in awe of him."

Interestingly enough, Yetka will be heading to Bemidji State in Minnesota next year, and the pair will suddenly become rivals.

"They call it the 'Highway 2 rivalry,' " Cleary said with a laugh. "We're really looking forward to it."

As noted, Cleary tried to seize on as many opportunities as he could this past season. Crookston, in far northwest Minnesota near the North Dakota border, was in a rebuilding year. Cleary was one of five incoming freshmen this past season.

Cleary said everyone was receptive to the newcomers and that the team jelled well. There were hard times this season, he added, but there was also growth for the team. The Golden Eagles had eight losses by five points or less, most of them in the second half of the season.

"The number one thing I had to learn," he said, "was that everyone on the floor, on our team and whoever we were playing was a talented player, a star on their high school team. In high school, you can get away with sneaking a player or two who's not as talented in the line-up, but here (in college), everyone is good."

But Cleary was ready for them. Among the others he worked out with last summer was former Piux XI star Carrington Love and former Tosa East and Louisville star guard Jerry Smith.

"Those guys were great players and playing against them everyday really helped with my confidence," he said.

But even to him, that first-game effort against Southwest was a shock on a number of levels.

"It was actually a career high, because my best in high school was only 31," he said. "After that game, I knew right away (that I could succeed)."

In that 42-point game, he hit 17 of 28 shots. Cleary gained so much respect that he was occasionally the subject of gimmick defenses that tried to deny him the ball. "That did get a little frustrating," he said.

His numbers did not come from being a ball-hog. He shot 48 percent from the field and 36 percent from 3 (48-134). He also got to the foul line (130-153 attempts, 85 percent). He also had 66 assists for the season.

Another interesting thing about the campaign was that Cleary was slated to be a point guard, but when he became the team's top offensive threat (only one other player averaged in double figures), he was moved to shooting guard. Talking with the coaching staff, it seems he might be making that move to point next season.

Cleary is optimistic that the team will get better.

"We (as a team) have talked a lot after the season," he said, "and we have a really good group coming back. We return four of five starters and we are confident. We'll start with defense (like we did in Oak Creek) and if we play together we'll be in the right spot."

The team is already in the right spot in different ways, as it had a 3.5 team grade point average the first semester of the season. Cleary, a sports and recreation management major, turned in a solid 3.2 GPA his first semester.

He said Weisse was a big part of his personal success this past winter, and that should lead to future team success.

"It helped that my coach (Weisse) really believed in me," said Cleary. "He gave me the keys and let me start the car."

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