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Sisters Jessie and MaKenna Harper to face off when Arizona softball hosts ASU

Photos by Ryan Kelapire and Brady Vernon

Jessie Harper and MaKenna Harper are sisters, but they could not be more different on the diamond.

MaKenna is a speedy, left-handed-hitting outfielder who bats for average. Jessie is a right-handed-hitting shortstop, whose powerful swing has her leading the Pac-12 in homers.

“We’re kind of like exact opposites,” Jessie laughed.

“Even our personalities are on different ends,” MaKenna added.*

So it should come as no surprise that they landed at rival schools. Jessie, a junior, stars for Arizona. MaKenna, a freshman, plays for Arizona State.

“I think that is how it was meant to be,” MaKenna said.

Jessie admits she was “so shocked” when she learned MaKenna committed to ASU, but has no ill will toward her Sun Devil sister.

“At the end of the day if you think about it, she’s only an hour and 45 minutes down the road,” Jessie said. “I get to see her all the time, we’re playing within the same Pac-12, we’re getting great games. So I’m happy for her. She has her own identity, I have mine.”

“I knew I didn’t want to be following in her footsteps but I wanted to be close enough where if I had an open weekend I could still go see her,” MaKenna added. “And I knew it was easy for the family and I also liked the little competition thing we had going on.”

Friday, the sisters will be reunited in Tucson when No. 11 Arizona hosts No. 17 ASU to kick off a three-game series. It’s a weekend the Harper family has had on their radar ever since MaKenna pledged to ASU in her freshman year of high school.

”My whole family’s gonna be here,” Jessie said. “It’s gonna be a whole big thing.”

Jessie is providing the tickets, meaning the 30 or so relatives will be sitting on the third-base side above Arizona’s dugout.

That is as partial as they will get. The congregation will be wearing grey shirts with “HARPER” plastered across the front. The A is Arizona’s block A. The E is ASU’s pitchfork logo turned sideways. One sleeve is stitched with the number 19 to represent Jessie; the other sleeve has 55 to recognize MaKenna.

“My mom gave those out as Christmas presents, so we’ll be very evenly supported,” Jessie said.

“It may be a little embarrassing,” MaKenna said, “but I really like it.”

Free time is scarce during the season, so Jessie and MaKenna have barely seen each other since February. The only time they crossed paths was at the Mary Nutter Classic in Palm Springs when MaKenna ambushed Jessie with a quick hug before going separate ways.

“I know she’s excited to be here, see me and I’m proud of her,” Jessie said. “She’s doing her thing there. But I’m excited to go out and play them and I know we have three great games ahead of us.”

Exemplifying the nature of their sisterhood, Jessie and MaKenna have very different roles with their respective teams.

A three-year starter, Jessie is hitting .363 with a Pac-12-best 17 homers and 39 RBI in the cleanup spot, proving to be one of the most fearsome sluggers in the Pac-12.

MaKenna is still finding her way at the collegiate level, with only 11 at-bats all season, serving mostly as a pinch-runner.

“My sister is the hardest worker I know,” MaKenna said. “She deserves everything that she has accomplished and I can’t take anything away from her. I think she is one of the greatest softball players and I’m just so proud of her and I think (her 17 homers are) an amazing accomplishment. I hope she keeps it up. Not against us, but everyone else.”

MaKenna said this season is a “huge learning year” for her. The freshman plans to soak in all the knowledge she can from her sister and a talented ASU outfield that is loaded with upperclassmen.

“There’s no better role model than my teammates and my sister,” MaKenna said. “That’s how I see it.”

MaKenna credits some of her softball skills to Jessie, whose obsession with the sport occasionally drove her crazy when they were growing up in Stevenson Ranch, California.

“Jessie is diehard softball,” MaKenna said. “Everything is eat, breathe, live softball. So every morning when she’d come back from (college) … we’re up at 7 a.m., we’re out on the field and if I missed a ball in the outfield she’d be on me. … We played two years of high school together and it was miserable. (It was) out of love, but you don’t want to hear it from your sister. She definitely made me a better player though, so I definitely appreciate the tough love.”

Friday will mark the first time they have ever been in opposite dugouts, but they are certainly no strangers to competition.

“When we were growing up, my dad would hit her ground balls and I’d be in the outfield, I’d come in the infield and try and see if I could do what she was doing and just try and be better than her,” MaKenna said.

After Harper had a game-winning hit against ASU last year, MaKenna, still a senior in high school, sent a text message that read, “I wish you struck out.”

Jessie replied with “#ForksDown.”

“It’s a friendly competition we have going on,” MaKenna said. “I was happy for her, but having so much pride in (ASU), we want to come out on top. It was frustrating even though I wasn’t here. I still wanted to see the Devils on top.”

To keep the spirit of the rivalry, Jessie said she will only casually nod at MaKenna this weekend should they find themselves in close proximity on the diamond.

“Try to keep it cool,” Jessie said.

MaKenna said she will try to distract Jessie as much as possible, maybe even throwing in some trash talk.

But once the final out is recorded, the rivalry will be set aside.

“I kinda embrace that opportunity,” said UA coach Mike Candrea. “I mean, the odds of two players from the same family playing at the Division I level is tough enough. I’m sure it’s not going to be a distraction. I think (Jessie will) go about her business and her sister will go about her business. And at the end of the day, they’re gonna hug each other. It’s what it should be.”

*all quotes from MaKenna via Brady Vernon of House of Sparky