Wednesday, June 23, 2021
Home Game College World Series, not NCAA home run record, is Jessie Harper's aim

College World Series, not NCAA home run record, is Jessie Harper’s aim

Jim Harper has a national championship ring from his time as a kicker for the University of Colorado’s football team in 1990. He has a badge from the Los Angeles Police Department, where he has worked for the past 27 years. He has two daughters playing Division I softball. What the father of University of Arizona senior shortstop Jessie Harper doesn’t have is a good arm.

And that’s one of the reasons Jessie Harper is currently fourth on the NCAA’s all-time home run list with 88 heading into Friday, seven shy of tying former Oklahoma Sooners star Lauren Chamberlain for No. 1 with eight regular-season games, the Pac-12 tournament and the NCAA tournament left in her career.

“I heard somebody say once that she’s the best bad-ball hitter that they’ve ever seen,” Jim Harper said. “And I thought about it and I was like, ‘Well, the reason she’s the best bad-ball hitter is because I’m the worst pitcher, ever.’ It was either sit there and take walks in the batting cage or hit whatever I threw. So, she had to learn to hit a ball high, hit a ball low, hit a ball on her hands, hit a ball outside.

“And, unfortunately, I never got better as a pitcher, so she really worked at hitting these balls that are all over the place and I think it’s helped her, as bad as that sounds.”

It contributed to the development of one of the most unassuming power hitters in years. Harper stands 5-foot-6 and gets her power from her legs. The long ball wasn’t her calling card in high school, but she sprang for 19 as a freshman, surprising her younger sister, Makenna, who plays for the Arizona State Sun Devils, two hours up Interstate 10.

For the next four years, though, Jessie followed in the footsteps of some of the greatest home run hitters college softball has ever seen. Arizona owns five of the top seven spots on the all-time dinger list — well, make that six of the top eight now that Harper has firmly planted herself among the game’s greats.

“There’s not a pitch that she doesn’t like,” Arizona coach Mike Candrea told ESPN. “She’s got a large zone, but I can’t say she’s a patient hitter. She has great hand-eye coordination, and has the knack of putting the barrel on the ball.

“She’s never found a pitch she doesn’t like and, so, it’s hard to pitch to someone like that.”

JESSIE HARPER WAS sitting in her room in Tucson, Arizona, getting ready to meet her grandparents for lunch, on March 12, 2020, when a Twitter notification lit up her phone. The day before, Harper, as the sports world was coming to a screeching halt around her, watched as other college leagues started canceling their spring seasons. That Thursday was her turn to experience the disappointment that college athletes around the country had started to feel. The tweet said that the Pac-12 was canceling the rest of the spring sports’ seasons. Harper’s heart dropped. She texted her grandmother and canceled lunch.

Harper immediately called teammate Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza and then ran out to her living room, where her teammate and roommate, third baseman Malia Martinez, met her, both in tears.

Candrea held a meeting an hour later. It was more of a support group than an informational session. He didn’t have any information, but being around each other, in tears no less, helped. It was during that meeting, however, that Harper committed to coming back to school for a fifth season if she was able to. She drove to Tempe to be with her sister and her parents met them there, where they spent together, unsure of what was to come.

Then, on that Monday, Candrea got back in touch with his players to tell them to go home and spend some time with their families. Harper headed back to Stevenson Ranch, California, a small town outside of Santa Clarita, an hour north of downtown Los Angeles.

For the next two weeks, thinking that her career is probably over, Harper took her classes online, and would hit ground balls to her sister.

“In my head, I was like, ‘Well, I hope this hitting is worth something,'” she said. “I hope I can play again.”

Harper’s goal has been to play professional softball, so while the extra work during those two weeks might not have had an impact on her college career, she was hoping she’d stay sharp for her shot at the big leagues.

“It was a weird two weeks, that’s for sure,” she said. “Definitely in a funk.”

While Harper and the other players were at home, Candrea was working on figuring out a way to convince the powers that be to give the seniors around the country another season.

“I hated to see them leave and not have their moment as a senior to say goodbye and have some closure,” Candrea said. “It was kind of an empty feeling.”

Then, on March 30, Harper and the rest of the spring sports athletes found out the NCAA was granting an extra year of eligibility to seniors. Those ground balls didn’t go to waste.

She’d have a chance to not just play a full senior season and try to get back to the College World Series, but to chase down the home run record.

When Harper’s first senior season was canceled after 25 games, she had 76 career home runs, which put her 10th on the all-time list, and was preparing to graduate and become a graduate assistant for the Wildcats for two years while pursuing her master’s degree. Part of that plan got put on hold while the other part sped up. She graduated last May with a degree in sociology, so she spent this school year beginning her master’s in educational leadership. Her position on Candrea’s staff as a grad assistant was put on hold until 2022. But it was worth the wait.

IT HAS BEEN hard for Harper to avoid talk of the all-time home run list as she has climbed it this season. She doesn’t go looking for it. It’s more like it finds her, especially when she gets on Twitter.

The social media aspect of college softball has been a double-edged sword for Harper, especially this season. It has helped grow the game to points it never reached before, but it also has put her pursuit of 95 home runs in front of her almost daily.

Still, she’s not always aware of when she picks off another place on the list, something her younger sister gives her a hard time about.

“My sister will make fun of me,” Harper said. “She’s like, ‘Oh, my gosh, you get good grades but you’re kind of slow with math.’ I’m just playing. I hit a home run, I don’t really count it.”

Harper is acutely aware of the record and how close she’s getting to it, but this season she hasn’t been as prolific as in years past. She was stuck on four home runs until late March, when she had four home runs in three games against Oregon State. Since then, she has had four homers in 19 games over the course of more than five weeks.

Her last one came May 2, catapulting her past former Arizona star Stacie Chambers into fourth all-time.

“Records are meant to be broken,” Chambers said. “That’s a part of the game that makes it fun. Aside from playing it, knowing that you have the opportunity to do those kinds of things is a pretty cool feeling.”

Harper looks at each home run as a means to a win, not another rung on the all-time home run ladder. She tasted the Women’s College World Series in 2019 and wants, more than anything, to get back. If her homers can help bring the Wildcats there, then that’s even better for the 23-year-old. She has tried to replace the pressure of the chase and even thinking about it by becoming her teammates’ biggest cheerleader by “really glorifying them.”

When Palomino-Cardoza was named the Pac-12 Player of the Week in late March, Harper made it her goal to “hype that up all the way.”

Deflecting has worked so far, she said.

“I mean, at the end of the day, like, no one’s really pushing me, like, saying, ‘Oh my gosh, you have to break it or else. Dun dun dun,'” Harper said. “As long as I’m just having fun, loving the game, that’s all that really matters to me.

“But I definitely want to take this time my senior year to really make sure that my teammates know that they’re super amazing because I wasn’t expecting to be able to play with these girls again. So, just getting the opportunity to play with them again, I want to make sure that they feel the love from me because that’s really what it’s all about.”

That’s how Chamberlain felt when she chased down the home run record in 2015.

“It’s a mix of a lot of emotions,” Chamberlain said. “When you’re a senior, you’re wanting to sort of kumbaya with your teammates and enjoy your last moments on the field together, and you’re trying to leave your lasting legacy as a class to get — their goal ultimately, and I’ve heard Jess say it before — is to get back to the World Series and get her team to Oklahoma City.

“I think that, for any competitor, is the No. 1 goal, but at the same time, you want to leave your personal legacy. So, the feeling is ultimately helping the team win, and at the end of the day if you get the record, you get the record.”

Candrea didn’t sit Harper down at the beginning of the season to talk about the record, but he did see her press early on. She has started to relax a bit, he said, but Makenna, her sister, thinks the pressure has been getting to her.

“If I’m being totally honest, yes,” Makenna said. “Everybody talks about it every time she comes up to the plate. Like, of course she knows it in the back of her head, so I think it’s kind of just sitting there a little bit.

“But she’s not letting it affect her play too much. I mean she honestly just wants to be out there.”

As much as Harper has been trying not to pay attention to the record, deep down, she wants it. But if she doesn’t hit another home run the rest of the year and finishes her career fourth on the list, or even third or second, she’s good with that, too.

“In all honesty, I want to break the record, don’t get me wrong,” she said. “But I will not feel any sort of way if I don’t. I know that I’ve done everything in my ability to be the player I am, to be the teammate I am, to get our team to where they need to be.

“At the end of the day, I am going to end my college career so overly proud of myself that if I break it or not, I still know that I am great. That’s all I have to say. Either way, I’ve done all that I can to be the player I am and I will go out happy no matter what.”

WATCHING HARPER EVERY day, Candrea doesn’t see a player who covets the home run record.

If she were to set it, Harper wants it to be broken by someone else just as fast.

“There’s not an ounce of selfishness in her,” he said.

Just a lot of home runs.

Harper has witnessed a home run chase before. She was teammates with Katiyana Mauga as a freshman in 2017 when Mauga finished her career with 92 home runs, second all-time and three short of tying Chamberlain. Watching Mauga every day — and then hitting 19 home runs herself — gave Harper both a lesson in home run hitting and the confidence to feel like she belonged.

Now, as she’s on the cusp of chasing down Chamberlain, those whom she has passed and those whom she’s chasing feel she’s worthy of being the newest home run queen, should she get there. But it’ll be hard to close it out.

“It’s a difficult record to break,” said Chamberlain, who broke former UCLA star Stacey Nuveman’s record that stood for 13 years.

As with any record that doesn’t fall into the confines of a societal norm, there’ll be questions surrounding it. In Harper’s case, everyone will know she had an extra year to do it. Chamberlain wasn’t sure where she came down on it.

Chambers had a clearer opinion.

“In my eyes, every single one of those seniors this year, they’re redshirt seniors,” she said. “It’s no different than if someone had a medical redshirt in my eyes.”

And if Harper does break the record, every room she walks into, she’ll be known as the home run queen.

“That’s,” Chamberlain said, “a good tag line to have.”

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