Junior shortstop Jessie Harper has a nation’s-leading 28 home runs and is nearing the school’s all-time home run list, yet, you rarely – if ever – hear people talk about her defense.
Apparently, like in most sports offense trumps defense even when the defense is as strong as the offense.
So, does her offense overshadow her outstanding defense?
“My hitting has been what has sparked the media, but I really try to not look too far into it,” said Harper, who was named a second team All-American by the National Fastpitch Association on Wednesday. “I just hope that whatever I’m doing is helping my team to the best of its ability.
“If hitting a home run helps our team that’s great. As for defense, it’s helping our pitcher, knowing that we have to get 21 outs (for a seven-inning game) and the quickest way to do that (is being good defensively). The better I can help our pitcher relieve that stress is what I want to do.”
Stress, what stress? Last weekend, Harper was a wizard with her glove, getting nine assists on ground balls, one making ESPN’s top 10 plays of the day, falling in at No. 6. It came on a high-bouncer over the pitcher where she got it and then back-hand flipped it to first to end the sixth inning.
Wildcats feeling’ SUPER. 😏
It was part ad-lib, instincts and athletic ability. And, easily, her best play to date, she said.
“That’s going to be the one I go back to,” she said. “Sadly, I don’t pay attention to (big plays). (But) that last one was pretty cool.”
Still, does that defense get overshadowed by her offense?
“Early on in her career I think it did,” Arizona coach Mike Candrea said. “I think her defense has gotten better. She’s been able to slow the game down defensively. Yes, when people talk about Harper the first thing that comes out of their mouths is that Harper hits home runs. I was very impressed with how she played shortstop (last) weekend. It’s what we’re going to need from here on out.”
And, of course, her bat. She enters Thursday’s game with Washington at the College World Series hitting .345 with her 28 home runs 69 RBI and 64 runs scored.
Harper admits – despite her home run success and her flashy yet consistent glove work – all she wants to do is win and “stay under the radar.”
Um, too late for that, given what she’s accomplished through the years. She’s just two home runs shy of the school’s all-time for a junior and 27 shy of the school record. And she’s among some of the best shortstops in the long history of shortstops the school has produced.
And, well, that’s saying something given UA has had Julie Standering (fantastic with the glove), Laura Espinoza (glove and offense), Lovie Jung (all around player) and, well, so many, many more.
“We had a bunch,” Candrea said. “Standering was as good with the glove as we’ve ever had. Espinoza was an underrated defensively because of her power kind of like Jess. We’ve had a few.”
A few – at every position – would be an understatement.
“Any position here at Arizona has amazing alumni,” she said, smiling. “I like to say that coach isn’t all that impressed because of the amazing players that have come before me and who have built this program.
“I know the history is rich because I grew up watching these players, but the best thing is I have Mo (Mercado, her coach and a former UA shortstop) in my corner. If I do something wrong or if she sees something I can fix, she’s the first one to tell me.”
There have been few problems this season, save for a game she wishes she had back (more later). In 176 chances she’s had just eight errors.
She likely spends just as much time on her fielding than she does with her hitting, not knowing exactly how many swings she takes in a day nor how many ground balls she takes.
“What’s amazing is coach (Candrea) can hit a ground ball every three seconds,” she said. “If coach is feeling good, he can go forever. He can hit so many ground balls. I’m definitely huffing and puffing after it.”
But better prepared for it.
“The biggest thing at shortstop is if you can get a kid who can make 100 percent of the routine plays then you’ve got a good shortstop,” he said.
And Harper is exactly that.