For many senior athletes during this time, the decision to play another year of college is a tough one. Do you endure two more semesters of 9 a.m. classes in exchange for one more year of playing with your college teammates? But for Arizona softball seniors Jessie Harper and Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza, the decision was a no-brainer.
“I knew without a doubt that I wanted to come back if given the opportunity to play again,” Harper said in a Zoom press conference on Monday. “The season ending that way was just so abrupt and just ‘out of the blue’ to me. I really wanted the opportunity to come back and really finish what I started with my teammates.”
The NCAA announced its decision last month to grant spring semester student-athletes an extra year of eligibility to compensate for the loss of the 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
By the time the NCAA had hit pause on the season, there was a case to be made that Arizona was one of the best teams in the country. The Wildcats were ranked No. 4 in the country with a 22-3 record, all while riding an 11-game win streak with four wins against top 25 schools. The team’s success wasn’t the only script that was left unwritten as Harper was also 19 home runs away from breaking the NCAA record.
It could be several months before Harper is allowed to return to campus and train again for next season. So, for now, a garage with a tee and a net in her parent’s home in Stevenson Ranch, Calif., with her sister MaKenna, who plays softball at ASU, will have to do.
“I do a lot of mirror drills," Harper said. "Just looking at myself in the mirror and evaluating my swing that way but trying to do little things, going back to the basics to really just try and maintain my comfortability within my swing."
Harper and the rest of her family have also been hiking, bike riding and even playing tennis in her grandparents’ backyard to pass the time.
“Just something to keep our mind off this crazy time and keep us busy,” she said.
Returning for another year is not only a mental grind but a physical one as well. For Palomino-Cardoza, the 2021 season will be her sixth after suffering two ACL tears, her right ACL ended her freshman season in 2016 and her left ACL ended her 2017 campaign just before the start of the postseason.
“It was an instant yes [to return],” Palomino-Cardoza said via video call. “A lot of people have asked ‘well why? Considering your body.’ I’ve talked to other people who are in my position with knee injuries and it is hard. There’s a lot of pain and mental stuff that goes into it, but I started something in an Arizona uniform and I want to finish it the way I want to.”
“One ACL is enough to break anyone down,” Harper said. “But she’s overcome so many humps, and I know that she’s just going to work even harder. Without her on the team I don’t think we’d be complete.”
Support from coaches and athletic directors is one of the most important things during this difficult time. The University of Wisconsin recently announced that they will not be allowing their senior athletes to return next season, so Harper was extra appreciative of the backing from head coach Mike Candrea and athletic director Dave Heeke.
“Coach [Candrea] has been awesome,” Harper said. “He’s been battling for us this whole entire way and we knew that without a doubt that he was going to try his hardest to get us the opportunity to either choose if we want to come back or not. Dave Heeke has been with us the whole way, our athletic director, really fighting for us. So when I saw that for Wisconsin, I was really feeling for them. That’s not something you want to go through.”
“[Candrea] treats us like we’re his own kids,” Palomino-Cardoza said. “We know that he would lay his life down for us. We know that he would do absolutely anything for us just like we were his own, so it’s always reassuring to know that he has our backs no matter what.”
Arizona hopes to welcome back the rest of its senior class, including Dejah Mulipola from Team USA if the Olympic schedule does not overlap.
“When we first found out the news, a lot of our seniors came together, we were like, ‘no matter what we’re coming back,’” Harper said. “We need to.”
The Wildcats will also be welcoming in the No. 1 recruiting class next year, adding eight more players to the team, meaning Arizona’s roster will be full of depth next year, maybe even too much depth as playing time will be scarce with the roster potentially being close to 30 players next season.
“That will definitely be the biggest team I’ve ever played for,’ Harper said. “We just have to take it as a blessing. We’re all in this together at this point. At the end of the day, all schools are going to be in the same boat.”
The two are staying positive by reassuring themselves just how valuable it is to play college softball at a high level.
“I would have never thought that I would have a fifth year, let alone a chance for a sixth year," Harper said, "so definitely just soak up every moment of it and learn everything you can. I’ve learned so much being in an Arizona uniform and I wouldn't trade this experience for the world.”
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