Jessie Harper’s jersey number is 19, what some might see as a symbol for one of the most compelling storylines of the 2021 Arizona softball season.
19 just so happens to be the number of home runs she needs to tie the NCAA all-time record. And no matter where the senior steps into the batter’s box this season, the home run chase—and all the hype surrounding it—will follow her.
Harper isn’t oblivious to it. She knows her pursuit of history will be mentioned ad nauseam this season. Every time she goes yard she will be asked about moving up the all-time leaderboard and what it means to her.
Not a whole lot, it seems.
“I want more than anything to have our team to be able to have our fans, our family in the stands,” said Harper, whose 76 homers are 12th-most all-time. “I love playing in front of my parents and just being able to look up and see my parents and my grandparents in the stands supporting me and my teammates. But right now as far as the home run record goes, I’m just here to play have some fun with my teammates and win some games. I want to make it to the World Series. I want to be playing the last game of season. So as long as I can have a national championship ring on my finger at the end of this, I don’t care about any records, I just want to win. That’s the name of the game. The home run record is cool…but I want to win that last game and I think this team can do it.”
Arizona—also known as Home Run U—has had several players in Harper’s shoes before. Six of the top 14 power hitters of all-time graduated from the UA. Katiyana Mauga was the last to make history, breaking Arizona’s home run record (92) in 2017 when Harper was a freshman.
The pressure of such a pursuit can be staggering. Mauga went through a 1-for-15 slump that season and her struggles occasionally reduced her to tears after games. When she finally did hit that record-setting Mauga Bomb, she was more relieved than anything.
“It felt like an accomplishment,” Mauga said that day, “but I’m glad it’s over.”
There is no way for Harper to escape the hoopla either, but head coach Mike Candrea says she can overcome it by not putting extra pressure on herself. In other words, just keep being the free-swinging shortstop that she is.
Harper has hit 39 of her 76 homers in her last 87 games, about one long ball every 2.2 games. If she sustains that rate, she will become Arizona’s new home run queen by the 38th game of the 2021 season and the NCAA’s by the 45th game of the season. Women’s College World Series teams typically play north of 60 games a year.
“Records are going to happen if you go out and perform, so I think you really have to go back to the basics to make sure that you’re ready to play physically, mentally, emotionally,” said Candrea, who has been around for all of Arizona’s record-setting moments. “We all say ‘play the game one pitch at a time’ but it’s so true. If you look too far down the road, this game will bite you. And I think Jessie’s got a good head on her shoulders. She loves to play the game. I think maybe with COVID and having this break for such a long time she’s really going back to the basics, just appreciating being on the field and playing the game. And so I don’t think it’s going to be a concern.”
That is the vibe Harper gave off in her preseason interview. She said she’s grateful to have a chance to wear the Arizona A again. When the 2020 season was stopped short last March, her biggest concern was that she would never get to play in front of her family or with her star-studded senior class again.
The home run record was, and still is, an afterthought.
“You never know when your last game is gonna be and we learned that last season,” Harper said. “I’m just so thankful to be here with my teammates and finish it out with my senior group. We are a special group and I think we’re gonna have a bright future ahead of us. That (offseason) was the longest that I’ve gone without seeing my teammates, which is a crazy thing because we’re here grinding it out every single day together. And to go home for months on end and not know when I was gonna see (Alyssa) Denham or anyone again was kind of weird. So I’m definitely thankful for all the sport has given to me and I’m so excited to step out on the field with my friends and just have fun and play the game we love.”
NCAA all-time home run leaders
- 1. Lauren Chamberlain (Oklahoma) — 95
- 2. Katiyana Mauga (Arizona) — 92
- 3. Stacey Nuveman (UCLA) — 90
- 4. Stacie Chambers (Arizona) — 87
- T5. Leah Braatz (Arizona) — 85
- T5. Laura Espinoza (Arizona) — 85
- 7. Shelby Pendley* (Arizona & Oklahoma) — 84
- T8. Danyele Gomez (Louisiana) — 83
- T8. Jessica Warren (Florida State) — 83
- 10. Sierra Romero (Oklahoma) — 82
- 11. Kristen Rivera (Washington) — 79
- T12. Jessie Harper (Arizona) — 76**
- T12. Jenny Dalton (Arizona) — 76
- T12. Megan Baltzell (Longwood) — 76
*finished career at Oklahoma
** active player