When Ray Leone got an email from Jarena Harmon in 2016, the Maryland head coach didn’t need to check the stats from her freshman year at Pittsburgh to know she could help him during the start of his tenure in College Park.
As a coach at Harvard, Leone had noticed a 14-year-old Harmon run through opposing defenses as the centerpiece of a talented McLean Youth Soccer team. He tracked her progress with the club through high school.
Harmon was one of the top recruits in the mid-Atlantic, and she showed why at Pitt by leading the team with seven goals as a freshman. But she was unhappy as a Panther and wanted to transfer, so Leone had her visit College Park to try to secure a player he knew could be a cornerstone of his program.
“I just told her … she could be herself at Maryland,” Leone said. “And that she can be a creative player for us, and I didn’t want to change her at all. We’ll build an offense around that style.”
Leone’s pitch worked, and Harmon became an integral part of the coach’s attempted rebuild at Maryland. But Harmon’s college career hit more bumps once she became a Terp, as she had to battle through injuries to finish an impressive career as the go-to target of Maryland’s attack.
Jarena found her affinity for soccer as a toddler, jostling with her older brother Joshua in the basement of their home in Washington, D.C. After shifting couches around to make the room resemble a small pitch, Jarena and Joshua would compete one-on-one, with their younger brother Justin in the fray.
Watching their children mimic goal-scoring chances and wreak havoc on their basement, Keeva and John Harmon wanted to give Jarena an outlet for her endless energy and enthusiasm for soccer.
“We didn’t want to be biased,” John Harmon said. “[We wanted] her to realize she can accomplish anything as a young lady, that there was nothing that was beyond her reach. And she was very competitive.”
When Jarena was 3, her parents placed her on Joshua’s team, and despite being a year or two younger than the competition, she excelled. Even at that age, she enjoyed the sport so much, her mother said, she would pile her soccer uniform, cleats and shin guards by the door in advance of every game and practice.
Harmon played on her first travel team at age 8. A few seasons later, after squaring off against a team from the Elite Clubs National League — an organization dedicated to developing young soccer players — she decided she wanted to be a part of the program to ensure she could continue playing soccer for as long as she could.
“Playing professional soccer was on my bucket list,” Harmon said. “[Playing in college] was a step I knew I had to take.”
Harmon was usually the best player on her travel team, so she became accustomed to having the offense run through her on every possession.
With the help of McLean coach Nadir Moumen, Harmon learned to play a possession-based style that would make her game more appealing to colleges by incorporating her teammates to create more space and produce better chances.
Still, her raw talent was undeniable.
“She was extremely unique,” Moumen said. “Probably the best player I’ve ever coached or seen in the air in terms of scoring headers and volleys. She’s definitely one of the best goalscorers I’ve ever coached.”
Harmon led McLean to two state championships. And in three seasons playing for St. Andrew’s Episcopal, a private school in Potomac, she tallied 98 goals and 11 assists, earning Washington Post All-Metro honors after each campaign.
Those performances garnered Harmon offers from colleges all over the East Coast. But as her senior year rolled around, she had yet to pledge a commitment, and was beginning to have doubts about playing in college at all.
“I had friends that played in college,” Harmon said. “They talk about how hard it is to maintain your body and keep up with school.”
Harmon eventually committed to Pitt, which she felt was close enough to home that her family could still watch her play. And judging from her on-field play with the Panthers — seven goals, including three game-winners, in 13 games — she seemed to have made a good decision.
But by the end of her rookie campaign, Harmon had decided she wanted to leave. The precise source of her discontent differs depending on who’s talking — Harmon said she wanted to be closer to D.C. and avoid the Pennsylvania weather, her mom attributed the move to academics and her dad said she simply “needed a change.”
Regardless, Harmon’s decision brought her closer to home and primed her to make an impact for Leone’s squad.
‘Really an amazing example’
Just like in Pittsburgh, Harmon lived up to expectations during her first year in College Park. She scored a hat trick in her third game at Maryland and finished the 2016 season with eight goals.
But she couldn’t consistently replicate that form the next year. By the time her senior season began this fall, Harmon had to reassert herself as the lethal striker Leone saw with McLean.
In the team’s first conference game of 2017, Harmon suffered a groin injury that severely limited her effectiveness for the rest of the campaign. Without one of the leading cogs in their attack, the Terps lost eight of their last 11 games and failed to score in their final six.
So before the 2018 season, assistant coaches Manya Puppione and Yewande Balogun emphasized the importance of Harmon setting the tone for her senior year.
“All you have to do is get a goal — preferably first — and the team will follow,” they told her.
And less than five minutes into the season opener against William & Mary, Harmon pounced on an opportunity to announce her return as Maryland’s leader.
Midfielder Hope Lewandoski sent a ball over the top into traffic that Harmon appeared to have little chance of reaching. But just as she had done with her brothers in the basement of her childhood home, she jockeyed for position, then got a foot on the ball and directed it on goal, showing she was back at full strength and capable of the same precision she displayed at Pitt.
“When the ball hit the net, it was kind of like, ‘OK, we got this,’” Harmon said. “‘We can do this.’”
The team held on for a season-opening 2-1 victory, removing the cloud of the nine-game winless streak it entered the season on.
After the strong start, most of Harmon’s final year at Maryland didn’t go as planned, with the team finishing 4-10-5 and missing the Big Ten tournament. But she delivered one more memorable moment in one of her final games in College Park.
In the 16th minute against then-No. 14 Northwestern on her Senior Day, Harmon scored one of Maryland’s most impressive goals of the season, blistering a strike from outside the box and past the diving goalkeeper into the back of the net. The score gave the Terps an early lead en route to their first ranked win in more than four years.
“To win that game,” Harmon said, “I was so close to crying.”
With her parents in the stands and a coach who always believed in her on the sideline, Harmon offered one final shining moment to the people who supported her through the highs and lows.
After being hardened as the middle child in Washington, D.C., finding early success but ultimately departing from Pittsburgh and battling through injuries at Maryland, Harmon cemented her legacy as the face of Leone’s first seasons leading the Terps.
“It’s been a real honor to coach her,” Leone said. “She is such a great teammate, and it really shows in the way she plays. She is just really an amazing example for this young team.”