Harper's Homers Blast Arizona Past Auburn
TUCSON, Arizona – Jessie Harper was sitting in front of the media, ready to talk about her historic evening when she heard a pint-sized voice calling to her.
“Jessie! Can you sign my ball,” the young fan, Sam Fatura said.
Happy to oblige, the Wildcat shortstop bounded over, signed an autograph, and asked, “Did you have fun?”
The young girl nodded, and Harper followed with, “Great! See you next week.”
All smiles, Harper returned bubbly, ready to explain how she had helped make that super regional date happen.
Harper blasted three home runs, in the fourth, sixth and seventh innings, tallying five RBIs in a 12-3 victory over No. 24 Auburn in the regional championship. The first blast, a towering fly ball down the left-field line, tied her with Mississippi State’s Mia Davidson for the NCAA lead. The second, a drilled line drive that rested at the garage door of the school of dance, gave her the most by any Wildcat in a season since Stacie Chambers hit 31 in 2009. The final one, which crept over the wall in right center, capped off her 5-for-5 performance, the most hits by any Wildcat in a game since 2009.
“I’m not really going up there looking for something in particular,” Harper said. “I’m just looking for something to strike. I’m pretty known for hitting balls that are not necessarily the best, kind of a out of the zone, but it was working today.”
As far as Harper’s power numbers, Arizona coach Mike Candrea did not see this coming.
When he recruited Harper out of West Ranch High School in Stevenson Ranch, California, he saw a potentially good hitter, but it was difficult to envision she would be this consistent at knocking the ball out of the park. Just a junior, Harper has tallied 65 career homers, 27 shy of the all-time program record and 30 short of Lauren Chamberlain’s NCAA record.
“She’s just a good pure hitter,” Candrea said. “She’s got quick hands, stays behind the ball well and makes good adjustments, and growing up, I knew she was a good hitter. How good she was going to be at this level, I really couldn’t predict. She’s pretty phenomenal when she’s hitting the ball well, and she hits them out of every part of the ballpark as well.”
Of course, with 12 runs, it was hard to find a Wildcat without an offensive highlight.
Arizona racked up 14 hits, scoring three runs in the third and batting around while accumulating just one out in the fourth. Part of that was due to Auburn being short staffed. Its top two pitchers, Makayla Martin and Ashlee Swindle were unavailable due to injury, leaving coach Mikey Dean to rotate Lexie Handley and Chardonnay Harris. Once the Wildcats started rolling, it was hard to slow them down.
“You have two pitchers who are very similar except for velocity,” Dean said. “So you can’t throw something a whole lot different at them. Arizona is a great hitting team. When you’re not able to change things up and throw something different at them, they took advantage of that.”
In the circle for Arizona, Alyssa Denham gave up just three runs, giving ace Taylor McQuillin a chance to catch her breath after back-to-back complete games Friday and Saturday. Aside from a rocky third inning, in which she allowed all three runs, Denham was near perfect, allowing just four hits and striking out 10, including the game’s final batter, Morgan Podany.
“She’s a kid who, ever since she got here, she has wanted the ball,” Candrea said. “Part of it with her has been keeping in the right mindset all the time. There seems to be times in games where she will give up a walk, hit and a bomb, and in close ballgames you can’t let that happen.”
As Arizona awaits No. 11 Ole Miss next weekend in Tucson, Auburn heads back to Alabama in good spirits. In his second season at the helm, Dean guided the Tigers to their sixth regional championship and 39 wins. It’s a far cry form the on-field success they had a few years ago, which included being the 2016 Women’s College World Series runner-up, but after the off-the-field scandal with the previous regime, Dean is proud of the culture change.
“Sometimes you have the greatest athletes and not the greatest chemistry,” Podany, a senior, said. “Honestly, it is a lot more fun to play with a group of girls that you love to be around. The team this year bonded through the highs and lows really well, and it was a really fun to be a part of.”