One of Jessie Harper’s favorite parts about being a college softball player is traveling to different schools and seeing what their cities, stadiums and campuses have to offer. Arizona’s trip to Texas was enough to make even the most avid globetrotter happy to be home.
Cancelled games, COVID-19 protocols, winter storms and a messy flight schedule turned what was supposed to be an exhilarating opening weekend into a living nightmare.
“It was a little bit of an emotional roller coaster, not gonna lie,” the senior shortstop said. “We were so full of high emotions, high hopes for that game (against Texas and Alabama). Two top-10 matchups, that’s all you can ask for for the first week. And then we get there and it’s pretty chilly, my goodness. It was cold, definitely not Tucson weather. So we are stuck in our hotel rooms, doing all the COVID precautions, but it was very defeating when all you were told was, ‘hey, you’re not playing at all, you’re stuck to this hotel room, we’re going to try and get you to go back to Tucson when we can.’ And then of course our flight was cancelled and it just was like, ‘oh, we’re in this hotel even longer.”’
The Wildcats tried to slip out of Austin on Thursday, hours after the Texas Classic was called off. That plan fell through, so they had to wait until Friday to leave town. Some even longer than that.
According to Harper, a handful of players and staffers took a 12:30 p.m. flight to Tucson on Friday and half the team boarded a second flight at 4:30. The others were planning to catch a third flight at 6:30, but it got cancelled and they had to stay another day in Austin. Harper was among them.
“So Coach took our group and we went and hit,” she said. “It was nicer to hit with a little bit of a small group. And then he took us out for some victory ice cream to celebrate us staying in the hotel for one more night. That was Coach’s request. That if we’re gonna eat ice cream it had to be Dairy Queen so he can get his Butterfinger Blizzard. He was so excited for that. That was the probably the highlight of his trip.”
Through it all, Candrea was telling his players to be adaptable—or “fluid,” as he calls it—a trait every good team will need during this wonky 2021 season.
“It was just kind of funny that it was the weather and not COVID that we were dealing with,” he said.
Once the Wildcats returned to Tucson in full, they scrimmaged at Hillenbrand Stadium, where they will face Southern Utah on Friday to open the 2021 campaign.
While the taxing trip to Texas extended the longest offseason ever, the Wildcats have found some positives in it. It gave their eight freshmen a chance to experience life on the road for the first time and they now get to open the season on their beloved home field.
Even Alyssa Denham, a senior pitcher from Texas, is taking it in stride.
“Man, when I heard Coach tell us that we were opening in Texas, the first thing I did is I call my entire family, which is about 30 to 40 people, and telling them that they need to make arrangements to be at UT because that’s like three hours away from home and we haven’t played in Texas since my sophomore year here. So I was really upset last weekend when it got cancelled,” she said.
“But the good thing is my parents were already in Austin, so I got to wave to them in the (hotel) lobby, have a little conversation, obviously with masks and six feet apart. That was a lot different and kind of emotional despite not being able to necessarily give my parents a big hug like I wanted to, but it’s all part of the process. And with COVID those are the sacrifices I feel like we’re all having to make as a team, and I think that it leads up to being super excited for this weekend. Even though there’s no fans, I think all of us are going to have a lot of nerves, a lot of adrenaline to get through this weekend.”
Just seeing a different team in the visitor’s dugout is a reason to celebrate.
“I am so tired of facing our pitchers,” Harper joked. “The scrimmages have been amazing. It’s one of my favorite parts about this COVID time is that we have so many players on our team...so we’ve been doing a lot of scrimmages and it’s been great to see live pitching. But my goodness do I know Mariah (Lopez) like by the back of my hand now. I am tired of seeing her. I’m tired of seeing all of our pitchers. I’m tired of having to play shortstop with Alyssa Palomino up to bat. I’m ready to see new people.
“But my biggest thing is I just want to put on a uniform again, wear that Arizona across my chest and play with my teammates. I think when you’re playing in these scrimmages we keep that high intensity, but to have all your teammates in the dugout and to be cheering for each other, not cheering against [each other] ... I’m so excited for opening day.”
Arizona’s Hillenbrand Invitational schedule
- Friday: Arizona vs. Southern Utah, 3 p.m. MST
- Friday: Arizona vs. New Mexico, 6 p.m. MST
- Saturday: Arizona vs. New Mexico, 3 p.m. MST
- Saturday: Arizona vs. Seattle, 6 p.m. MST
- Sunday: Arizona vs. Southern Utah, 3 p.m. MST
All games will air on Arizona Live Stream 2. Start times are tentative since games often run longer than expected.