Arizona's Jessie Harper embracing patience toward NCAA softball home run record, WCWS hopes

Despite her senior season getting cut short due to the coronavirus pandemic, Jessie Harper plans to return in 2021 with the chance to break the NCAA's all-time home run record. Jacob Snow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Across the NCAA, seniors were left asking "What if?" in March when the coronavirus pandemic canceled the remaining winter and spring sporting events. Here are the stories that show the sudden, complicated, controversial and emotional ending athletes have been coming to grips with over the past few weeks.

Weeks before events beyond her control all but ensured she would become college softball's greatest home run hitter, Jessie Harper made a compelling case of her own with two swings -- and neither moved her any closer to the record.

Arizona was ranked fourth in the country when the NCAA shut down the season in response to the coronavirus pandemic and may have been good enough to end its 13-year national title drought. But the Wildcats are not Team USA, so it was hardly surprising to find the college team trailing the Olympic team by five runs midway through a Feb. 18 exhibition and struggling for runners against Cat Osterman.

Enter Arizona's All-American senior shortstop.

Harper was 6 years old when Osterman won gold in the 2004 Olympics. She grew up idolizing those Olympians to such a degree that her parents conceded that the lone tattoo she would ever be allowed was one depicting the Olympic rings -- if she ever made the roster. And her first at-bat against Osterman in February played out like an acolyte facing a celebrant. She swung at a drop ball that scraped the dirt. She swung at a rise ball almost above her head. Finally, she swung and missed at a backdoor curve that broke outside the zone. She sat down.

But in her next trip to the plate, Harper watched two tempting pitches sail low. She got ahead in the count. And when Osterman's aim finally failed her, Harper clobbered a pitch that sat in the middle of the zone into about the 10th row of the left-field bleachers. Then she did it again the next inning against U.S. reliever Ally Carda. The U.S. held on for the win, but Harper made her point. She hit a third of all the home runs Team USA allowed in its 16-game exhibition tour.

"She's the type of kid that has never found a pitch she didn't like," Arizona coach and former Team USA coach Mike Candrea said. "If it's around the zone, she's taking her hacks for sure."

Harper is an unlikely embodiment of patience. But these are unlikely times. She is the rare hitter who doesn't need patience to be good. She could always hit almost any pitch -- and was willing to try to hit the rest. But being a great hitter, finding a place among the very best for eight-time champion Arizona or anyone else in the college game, required learning to bide her time.

When it first looked as if the pandemic would abruptly end her career barely a month into this season, and now as she waits to realize a second chance to win the championship she wants most and the career home run record that may come with it, patience proved a life skill.

"Obviously people love to talk about breaking records, setting records," Harper said. "That's just what makes sports all the more interesting is you have a person you can label as the best or a record holder. Going into college, I knew I wanted to be as good as I could possibly be -- you always want to be the best wherever you go. But I didn't think that would lead to me hitting all these home runs and being in the talks for these records."

Just because you can hit it doesn't mean you should.

Other than perhaps "Good morning," those words cross Arizona associate coach Caitlin Lowe's lips about as often as any others in her conversations with Harper. They aren't an admonition as much as a reminder. A former Olympian and one of the best hitters in the sport's history, Lowe understands. She went to the plate intending to swing the bat, too. Why wait for a walk when she could hit .510?

She didn't want to mess with Harper's fearlessness and aggressiveness. She just wanted to remind her that, as in that second at-bat against Osterman, the next pitch might be the one you really want.

"You've got to be very careful with what you say to someone like Jessie," Lowe said, "Because Jessie can hit a ball at her head and clear our batter's eye [beyond] center field."

"If I can win a national championship with my team, that would be the highlight of my life. Not breaking the home run record. That would just be something else to go on to it." Jessie Harper

While Lauren Chamberlain burst on the scene with 30 home runs as a freshman, Harper almost quietly hit 19 home runs in her debut. That is still a lot of home runs. Among the seven players in Division I who hit more in 2017 was Arizona teammate Katiyana Mauga, whose ultimately unsuccessful pursuit of Chamberlain's career record drew the spotlight.

Harper hit 18 home runs the next season, again among the most in Division I but again second-best on her team behind Alyssa Palomino. It wasn't until Harper led the nation with 29 home runs a season ago that she was the main attraction.

Even by the standards of one of the sport's iconic programs, Candrea said Harper's work ethic is unique. Lowe described someone so eager to ask questions that the coach sometimes has to tell her to stop thinking and just hit. And it was last season, when she walked more times than her first two seasons combined, that Harper's work showed most clearly.

She was born a slugger. She learned to be a hitter.

"When she swings the bat, she doesn't hold anything back," Lowe said. "It's an all-or-nothing type of swing. When you're someone like that, you have to realize that you're going to swing and miss sometimes -- you're going to swing and miss sometimes really big. Sometimes it might be a little embarrassing. And that's the thing, you have to be OK with that if you're that type of hitter. She's learned to be OK with that."

All of which meant Harper had a real chance to catch Chamberlain's record of 95 home runs. If she equaled last season's 29 home runs, she would tie the record.

After hitting one against Saint Joseph's on March 10, she had 10 home runs this season. She woke up the next morning expecting to go shopping with her grandparents, who live in Tucson. Then came the waves of news that washed over the entire sports world that day. When the Pac-12 announced it was suspending spring play through the end of the month, she called her grandmother to say she couldn't go shopping. She needed to stay and follow the news.

Then the NCAA announced it was canceling not only its men's and women's basketball tournaments but also spring championships -- including the Women's College World Series.

Sitting on the floor of her room in almost a daze, Harper tried to make sense of what was happening. She wondered if that game against Saint Joseph's, an otherwise forgettable midweek game in March, would be the last she ever played for the Wildcats.

"I'll never have the opportunity again to make my family proud on the softball field," Harper recalled thinking. "I wanted so badly for my family to see the success that I have because my success was because of them. That's what hurt the most."

Candrea has more wins than any other coach in NCAA history. He coached the U.S. to a pair of Olympic medals, including gold in Athens in 2004. He has won championships and lost games in the most heartbreaking ways imaginable. But he hadn't encountered the looks on the faces of players as they gathered that afternoon for what was supposed to have been a normal practice.

No one had a blueprint for that. And no one really knew what came next.

"I remember walking into the room not knowing what to say," Candrea said. "You want to be able to comfort them. But it was really uncharted territory for me."

There was a glimmer of hope that day that gradually burned brighter in the idea that the NCAA might extend the eligibility of spring sport athletes. Harper originally planned to play pro softball this summer, but she always planned to return to Arizona to serve as a graduate manager or assistant with the softball team next season while pursuing postgraduate studies. Instead, after the NCAA empowered schools to extend that eligibility if they choose, she will be on the field and just 20 home runs from breaking Chamberlain's record.

Yes, her career will be 25 games longer than it would have been, but neither Harper nor anyone who benefits from the extension of eligibility will break the NCAA record of 305 career games played. Because teams in the past were able to schedule more games than is currently allowed, Harper will total fewer career games than former standouts like Cal's Veronica Nelson and Florida State's Jessica van der Linden. She'll likely have fewer career at-bats than Fresno State's Laura Berg or UCLA's Natasha Watley.

She may not even play more games than previous home run record holder Stacey Nuveman (although she will almost certainly play more than Chamberlain, who reached 95 home runs in a remarkably quick 220 games).

For now, like many, Harper's life is paused. She and her sister MaKenna, a sophomore outfielder who emerged as a starter at Arizona State this season, hit off a tee in the family garage in California. They do defensive drills with tennis balls thrown by their dad, Jim, a police officer, or play catch with their mom, Danielle, who played collegiately at Cal State Northridge.

And she waits. It's not what she does best, but she has learned it's the best way to do what she loves. Eventually she will get another chance to attack a pitch and help Arizona reclaim a place atop the sport by doing what she does better than just about anyone. Maybe everyone.

"We have girls hitting home runs all the time at Arizona," Harper said. "So I didn't think it was anything different. That's what people at Arizona softball do, they hit home runs. But I know those questions are being asked of me now. At the end of the day, that's not what is on my mind. I really, really, really want to finish my career at the Women's College World Series.

"If I can win a national championship with my team, that would be the highlight of my life. Not breaking the home run record. That would just be something else to go on to it."