Jessie Harper of house Hillenbrand, First of her Name, Breaker of Spirit and Destroyer of Softballs.
While millions watched the series finale of the popular TV show Game of Thrones, nearly 3,000 Arizona softball fans witnessed Harper reclaim her rightful spot on the throne of the NCAA home run leader list as the junior blasted her 26th, 27th and 28th home runs of the season leading the No. 6 Wildcats to a 12-3 rout over No. 24 Auburn Tigers in the Tucson Regional Championship.
The victory advances Arizona (45-12) to the Super Regionals for the 14th time in the last 15 years, and the Wildcats will host No. 11 Ole Miss next weekend. This will be the second time the Wildcats takes on Ole Miss in the past three seasons.
Harper’s three-homer game ties an Arizona record and is the first since Hallie Wilson vs. Stanford on April 26, 2015. She is also the first UA player to have five hits in a single game since 2009.
“Not really thinking too much about it, as long as I can help the team out,” Harper said.
While Harper shied away from taking credit, her head coach Mike Candrea had nothing but praise for one of the most feared hitters in softball.
“She’s always had good power,” Candrea chimed on about Harper. “Growing up I knew she was a good hitter. How good she was going to be at this level, I couldn’t predict… it’s one thing to have power but it’s another thing when you can put that power on display especially in big games like today.”
Harper and the nation’s second-best team in home runs per game went the first two contests of the Tucson Regional without sending one over the fence but used her trio of smashes and a three-run shot from Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza to down the Tigers for the second consecutive day.
Arizona, acting as the “away team”, used a three-run third inning to get on the board first, followed by a six-run explosion the following inning to break the game open.
Palomino-Cardoza got the scoring started in the third as she knocked in Hannah Martinez from second base on a single. The next batter was Harper who pulled a pitch down the left field line for her first homer of the night.
Alyssa Denham drew the start in the circle for the Wildcats in order to save Taylor McQuillin for a potential game two of the regional final. McQuillin’s services weren’t needed, however, as Denham pitched a complete game allowing just four hits and striking out 10. The right-handed junior ran into trouble in the third when she surrendered three runs, including a solo home run to Auburn’s Tannon Snow.
But the Arizona offense had Denham’s back. Tied 3-3 in the fourth, the Wildcats put their foot on the pedal and turned the game into a rout. The Wildcats batted around in the inning scoring runs on singles from Hanah Bowen, Hannah Martinez and a throwing error from Auburn’s Snow before Palomino-Cardoza stepped to the dish.
With two on and no outs, the junior uncorked a 2-1 fastball 230-plus feet over the wall right-center for her 16th home run of the season, leading Harper to later call her teammate’s homer as a “monstrous bomb.”
“That’s the best feeling ever as a pitcher,” Denham said of the run support. “When I make a couple of mistakes and your teammates double the amount of runs, it shows how much they fight for all of us.”
Harper added two more monstrous bombs of her own in the sixth and seventh innings to extend the rout as well as her national home run lead to carve her name in the record books.
“She’s not done, she’s a junior. But she’s pretty phenomenal when she’s seeing the ball well,” Candrea said.
The Wildcats will host the second round of the NCAA Tournament. UA will need to beat Ole Miss twice in a best of three series in order to advance to the Women’s College World Series for the first time since 2010.
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