The first thing that crossed Jessie Harper‘s mind when the 2020 softball season was canceled was not her pursuit of the NCAA home run record, even though she had a good shot of breaking it.
“My first thing was I’ll never have the opportunity again to make my family proud on the softball field, that I will never be able to perform again for them on that stage,” the senior shortstop said. “That’s what kind of hurt me the most. ... The whole home run thing, I think that’s just an added thing that people want to talk about.”
And get to keep talking about.
The NCAA recently granted spring student-athletes an extra year of eligibility after their 2020 seasons were cut short by the coronavirus, and Harper plans to take full advantage of it, announcing Monday her intentions to return to Arizona for a fifth season.
The All-American will enter her super-senior year 19 homers shy of tying Lauren Chamberlain’s NCAA record (95) and 16 shy of tying Katiyana Mauga’s program record (92), but that’s still not where her focus lies.
“Our senior class is something special, so to get that opportunity to play with them, and really just make it a full circle... is something special that I’ll be thankful for,” Harper said.
Harper had zero doubts that she wanted to return for a fifth season, but the ball was not entirely in her, or the NCAA’s, court. It also required a strong financial commitment from the University of Arizona.
A USA Today study showed it could cost Power Five public universities anywhere from $500,000 to $900,000 to bring their seniors back for another season—the price of tuition, equipment, housing, travel, food, etc. The University of Wisconsin recently became the first school to notify its seniors that they would not be welcomed back, and others are likely to follow.
Harper is grateful that Arizona head coach Mike Candrea and athletic director Dave Heeke have been “100 percent supportive” of her senior class.
Candrea, in particular, was one of the most prominent voices for eligibility relief. His backing was comforting for Harper, who communicates with Candrea on the daily and knows what kind of pull the Hall of Fame coach has in the sport.
“Coach has been awesome,” Harper said. “He’s been battling for us this whole entire way and we knew that without a doubt that he was going to try his hardest to get us the opportunity to either choose if we want to come back or not. So when I saw that for Wisconsin, I was really feeling for them. That’s not something you want to go through.”
The 2021 season is still 10 long months away, but Harper is already training for it with her sister MaKenna, an outfielder at ASU, at their family’s home in Stevenson Ranch, California where shelter-in-place orders are in effect.
They hit off a tee in their garage, do soft toss at a nearby field, and play catch in the front yard. They also do what Jessie calls “mirror drills.”
“Just looking at myself in the mirror and evaluating my swing that way, but trying to do little things, going back to the basics to really just try and maintain my comfortability within my swing,” she said.
When Harper is not sharpening her softball skills, she stays active in other ways, like hiking and bike riding. She’s even picked up another sport. Her grandparents have a tennis court in their backyard where Harper receives lessons from her mother Danielle, who played at the collegiate level.
As if that’s not enough, the Harpers recently added a new member to their family, an energetic maltese named Whiskey. They picked up the puppy on the way home from Arizona.
“Just something to keep our mind off this crazy time and keep us busy,” Jessie said.
Harper hopes to return to Tucson for summer workouts assuming the coronavirus has been tamed by then. She left her car in Arizona and only brought a week’s worth of clothes with her to California because she didn’t expect to be there very long.
Even if the NCAA had ruled differently and/or the UA declined to support its seniors, Harper was planning to re-join the Arizona softball program in 2021 as a graduate assistant.
Of course, she’d much rather play. The seniors have some unfinished business to settle.
“When we first found out the news, a lot of our seniors came together, we were like, ‘no matter what we’re coming back,’” Harper said. “We need to.”
Ranked fourth in the final NFCA poll, the Wildcats hope to return all six of their star seniors—and maybe even Dejah Mulipola from Team USA—but they all have their own decisions to make, factors to weigh.
Harper respects that, but cannot help but smile when she thinks about her team’s potential. Arizona is also set to welcome the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class, an eight-player group that could run UA’s roster count close to 30 players after it only had 20 in 2020.
“I can’t really comment too much on the new girls coming in, but I know if we get all our girls coming back again this next year and with us adding them, we’ll have a lot of depth,” Harper said.
And a renewed appreciation for the game.
“I think this has taught us to never take anything for granted, to really take pride in putting on that uniform,” Harper said. “It’ll give us another sense of pride when it comes to wearing the A that you never know when it’s going to be your last game and just really make the most of every single opportunity you have. But, yeah, I want everyone to come back. I think our team is going to be lights out.”