The Arizona Wildcats softball team currently leads the nation in home runs with 56 in its first 38 games. After hitting just 67 home runs last season, this year’s team reloaded over the summer and welcomed back one of last year’s top recruits, Alyssa Palomino, from an injury that kept her out last season.
The Wildcats boast both of the Pac-12 leaders in the HR category, and one of those leaders is senior Katiyana Mauga who has 12 this season, tying her with a freshman teammate.
Who’s that freshman teammate? Palomino? Nope. It’s time for Wildcats fans to become familiar with freshman Jessie Harper.
The Stevenson Ranch, California native is tied for the Pac-12 lead with teammate Mauga at 12 home runs and is second to Mauga on the team with a .761 slugging percentage. After hitting only 11 home runs as a senior at West Ranch High School, no one foresaw the type of power numbers Harper has put up.
“I did not expect to be doing this good; my mind is so clear right now,” Harper said. “I’m just doing what I can to help my team; that’s the end goal.”
Her home runs don’t exactly sneak out of the park, either. Harper already has a reputation for hitting some serious long balls.
Jessie Harper's INCREDIBLE 3-run HOME RUN scores the @OpusBank #12Best Moment! https://t.co/RYh4QTtCBv— Pac-12 Network (@Pac12Network) April 2, 2017
Harper arrived on campus in the fall and was recruited as a shortstop. Right away, Harper could tell the differences in the college game, but she never let it get to her.
“Being in this atmosphere is so different; college is definitely a step up from travel ball,” Harper said. “The girls are bigger, faster, stronger, and just their intelligence level with the game is amazing. The jitters were there and they still are here. I mean, anyone who is out here and says they don’t have a little bit of jitters is lying.”
But Arizona wasn’t in need of a Harper’s glove at short; senior Mo Mercado was a member of the All-Pac-12 Defensive Team last season.
Softball is similar to baseball in the sense that if you’re swinging a hot bat, you’ll find a way into the lineup. Harper has started all 38 games this season for the Wildcats at first base.
“Her going to first base was definitely hard for her, but she’s somebody that just wants to be out there. She’s somebody that, put her anywhere and she’s going to give you 110 percent,” Mercado said.
Harper has done more than help so far this season and has been as big a factor as any for the Wildcats 37-1 start.
Besides her physical tools, head coach Mike Candrea has applauded Harper’s mental makeup for a freshman as a reason for her sustained success in her first college season. Harper believes the game is 80 percent mental and 20 percent talent or skill.
“I kind of look at her as a Leah O’Brien,” Candrea said. “She’s got that smile on her face all the time, and whether it’s in practice or whether it’s in a game, there’s no change in emotions. To me, that’s one of the traits you have to have to play this game at a high level and play it consistently at a high level.”
O’Brien was a three-time national champion at Arizona and won a gold medal with Candrea in the 2004 Olympics. Clearly, Arizona’s skipper is excited about his newest power hitter.
“I knew she was good [during her recruitment],” Candrea said. “She played 18 and under when she was a freshman and had success. She was a big-time player that loved the big moments and came through in the big moments. I knew that I had gotten a gem when we got her to commit to Arizona.”
Mercado has taken Harper under her wing, and eventually Harper will take over the shortstop position when Mercado graduates. For now, Mercado is just as impressed as everyone else.
“To come out as a freshman and put as many home runs up as she has, she’s just very mature for her age,” Mercado said. “I feed off her, she feeds off me and she’s done nothing but spark our lineup.”
The sky is the limit for Arizona’s newest slugger, and besides being the breakout star for the Wildcats this season, Harper has a reputation for hitting everything, ever her outs, on a rope.
Jessie Harper, Larry Scott would like to see you in his office.https://t.co/phNSsxX9zR— Arizona Softball (@UA_Softball) March 31, 2017
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