If Jessie Harper was at Wisconsin, her college softball career at that school would be over despite the NCAA granting an extra year of eligibility in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic that forced the cancellation of the 2020 season.
Wisconsin last week issued a statement that its spring-sport athletes “have concluded their careers with us,” and athletic director Barry Alvarez mentioned, “What we tried to do was encourage our seniors to go ahead and, if you’re going to graduate, graduate and move on with your life.”
Wisconsin and Alvarez have a contrast in philosophy and effort with Mike Candrea and the Arizona administration in terms of making the return of seniors in 2021 work with underclassmen coming back and freshmen entering the program.
Softball has a scholarship limit of 12 players. If all seven Arizona seniors return, and most have indicated they will, including Harper and Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza, the Wildcats would have 27 players on their roster.
“Coach (Candrea) seemed, from when I talked to him, if the NCAA was going to pass it, that Arizona was going to back that 100 percent,” Harper said. “Dave Heeke has been with us the whole way, our athletic director really fighting for us. So I didn’t think it was even a shadow of a doubt.
“When I saw that for Wisconsin, I was really feeling for them. That’s not something you want to go through, especially when you found out that the NCAA guaranteed it, but then that school that you’ve played for for so long tells you no. That’s really hard.”
Harper and Palomino-Cardoza took part in the a ZOOM press conference from their homes today and they discussed a myriad of topics, most centering around their decision to return in 2021 and the support of Candrea and Heeke making it possible. Palomino-Cardoza, who has suffered ACL tears in both knees in her career that started in the 2015-16 school year, will be back for her sixth season.
Harper reiterated that “definitely, without a doubt, 100 percent, I was going to come back if given the opportunity.”
With the return of the seniors, the roster crunch is a concern for all colleges, including Arizona, which has already had a transfer out of the program — former CDO standout Carli Campbell.
“You definitely have to respect everyone’s decision,” Harper said. “When we first found out the news, a lot of our seniors came together and we were like, ‘No matter what, we’re coming back, we need to, this is what we want to do.’
“But, definitely, you can’t put too much pressure on your teammates. This is their decision at the end of the day. They have to do what’s best for them. I know that some people have other plans going on next year and what they have to do, but at the end of the day, we just have to support our teammates and whatever decision is best for them.”
She mentioned that if Arizona’s roster is 27 players next season, “it will definitely be the biggest team I have ever played for.”
“We just have to take it as a blessing, we all are in this together at this point,” she added. “I think we’ll bring back a bigger sense of pride that, hey, some of these (freshmen) girls that I never thought I was going to play with, I get the opportunity to play with. At the end of the day, all schools are going to be in the same boat.
“I watched an interview with Beth Torina, the LSU coach. She said she’d have 33 girls on the team, so they’ll even be bigger than ours. So this is just what college softball and college sports are going to be like for spring sports. There’s going to be big rosters. You’re going to have to find a way to really build that chemistry with that many girls.”
Harper, an All-American shortstop, has the opportunity to break the NCAA record of 95 home runs hit by Oklahoma’s Lauren Chamberlain from 2012-15. Harper is 19 shy of that mark with 76.
She mentioned she is doing a modified batting practice in her garage with her family strictly following the stay-at-home orders in California during the pandemic. Harper said she intends to return to Tucson during the summer to train if the stay-at-home orders are lifted.
“Everything seems like such a big question mark right now,” Harper said. “Definitely, I would want to go back to Arizona and train there and work with their facilities. But right now I’m just kind of at home doing whatever I can to stay in shape. My sister’s here (ASU sophomore MaKenna Harper) so I’ve been working out with her and doing that type of stuff.
“But I would love to go back to Arizona. I mean, I only packed a week’s worth of clothes. So I’m here in California with very limited clothing and I don’t have my car. My car’s still in Tucson. So I definitely will be making the trip back to Tucson. I can stay there over summer if I wanted to. But right now I’m just trying to take every day as it is. Once the stay-at-home orders are lifted and I’m free to travel and everything is safe, then I will definitely be doing more consistent softball and hopefully to go back to Arizona for a little bit.”
Harper has also passed her time training a new puppy, hiking with her family near their Stevenson Ranch, Calif., home, playing tennis at her grandparents’ house, and bike riding.
“Other than that, twiddling my thumbs, trying to get the days to go by,” she said with a laugh.
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.