Arizona's Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza, Jessie Harper Embrace Chance To Return
Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza and Jessie Harper donned the Arizona “A” across their chests over a Zoom press conference on Monday. Each player was simply grateful that with the NCAA’s granted eligibility relief, they had been given the chance to represent that “A” once again next season in Tucson.
“I never thought I’d have a fifth year, let alone a chance for a sixth year,” Palomino-Cardoza said. “I’m going to soak up every moment of it. I’ve learned so much being in an Arizona uniform. I wouldn’t trade this experience for the world.”
Palomino-Cardoza and Harper make up a very talented class of seniors that includes Reyna Carranco and Mariah Lopez. It was important for the two of them when making their own decisions about returning that they’d have a chance to finish with that historic class. Harper was always going to be involved with Arizona softball in 2021, as she planned to be a part of the coaching staff. But if she was allowed to play, she was absolutely going to put her cleats back on.
“I knew without a doubt that I wanted to come back if given the opportunity to play again,” Harper said. “The season ending that way was abrupt and out of the blue to me...Our senior class is something special. To get that opportunity to get to play with them and make it a full circle finishing freshman year to now, my fifth-year senior (year) with them is something special that I’ll be thankful for.”
The two Wildcat stars certainly want their class to fully return. However, they understand that their teammates might not be in a position to do so.
“This is life. You have to respect everyone’s decision,” Harper said. “When we first found out the news, a lot of us seniors came together (and said), ‘No matter what, we’re coming back. We need to. This is what we want to do.’ 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 is best for them...We have to support our teammates in the decision that is the best for them.”
The decision to allow spring student-athletes a chance at another year was certainly appreciated by many softball players around the country. Palomino-Cardoza and Harper are even more thankful for the work Arizona softball coach Mike Candrea and athletic director Dave Heeke have put in to help create that opportunity.
“(Candrea) treats us like we’re his own kids,” Palomino-Cardoza said. “We know he’d lay his life down for us. We know he’d do absolutely anything for us. It’s always reassuring that he has our backs no matter what.”
Harper displayed a lot of gratitude after learning that Wisconsin, another Power Five school, decided it will not let spring sport seniors return for another year.
“Coach has been awesome. He’s been battling for us this whole entire way. He knew without a doubt that he was going to try his hardest to get us the opportunity to choose if we get to come back or not,” Harper said. “From when I talked to him, it seemed if the NCAA was going to pass it that Arizona was going to back that 100 percent. Dave Heeke has been with us the whole way, really fighting for us. I didn’t even think it was a shadow of a doubt that once the NCAA granted it that I couldn’t come back.”
Each player has had her own way to stay occupied during this time without softball. Harper’s father has played a huge part in keeping her and her younger sister, MaKenna, an Arizona State outfielder, softball-ready with different hitting drills.
Palomino-Cardoza has had a chance to balance resting and maintaining a body that has been through two ACL surgeries. There’s been a lot of discussion about her plans to work through a sixth year, including adding a minor in sports management after she’s already double-majored.
“I’ve talked to other people in my position with knee injuries,” Palomino-Cardoza said. “It is hard. There’s a lot of pain and mental stuff that goes into it, but I started something and I want to finish it the way I want to.”
There’s a lot left in Tucson for Palomino-Cardoza and Harper, including Harper's shot at reaching Lauren Chamberlain's NCAA record 95 home runs. It’s unfinished business for a historic program that has its eye on a ninth national championship.
The chase isn’t over, it’s just to be continued.