Meet the fun-loving college softball slugger who's already lighting up Olympic legends

Arizona's Jessie Harper is setting herself apart in both her on- and off-field pursuits. (Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

This story is part of Yahoo Sports’ She’s Got Next series, featuring women in sports on the rise who deserve their time in the spotlight.

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It’s easy to feel the energy oozing from Jessie Harper, even though she’s on a phone call from the opposite coast.  

She hated phone calls once, as a kid born in 1998 who grew up with text messages and a smartphone. But now? Now, she’s a senior shortstop for Arizona, barreling toward a potential home run record, needing 22 more to join the rarefied 90-home-run-club. She’s gotten used to the inquiries and phone calls the milestones bring. Her fun, friendly personality has grown with each season.

“So what we got on today’s scheeedule?” Harper says, leaping into an interview with Yahoo Sports, enunciating the two syllables with a laugh.

Through three seasons, she’s hit 68 — fifth most all-time over that span — and if she hits another 27 this season, she’ll tie the all-time mark of 95 set by Oklahoma’s Lauren Chamberlain in 2015.

The typical stuff for Harper is on deck for today: home runs, inspirations and making the most of anything dealt from the circle.

Harper hits 2 home runs vs. Team USA

The 2019 NCAA home run leader is here on the call exactly one week after a night that’s beyond what she’s ever dreamed. The No. 4 Wildcats (17-3) hosted the U.S. national team at Hillenbrand Memorial Stadium in Tucson on Feb. 18 as part of the “Stand Beside Her” tour. And even among all that star power, Harper made sure she was seen.

With the U.S. already ahead, 5-0, in the bottom of the fourth, Harper sent one deep on Cat Osterman. The lefty pitcher is a legend in the game with a gold at the 2004 Olympics and a silver in 2008 — the last time the sport was in the games until Tokyo 2020 — and titles at both the Pan Am Games and Japan Cup last year.

Harper wasn’t done. The next inning, she took Ally Carda, a back-to-back Pac-12 Player of the Year for UCLA, deep with a three-run homer that made the final score, 5-4.

“Being able to compete with them and against them — it was just a surreal moment just being able to share the field with them,” said Harper, who grew up watching Team USA and played on the junior training team in 2017. “And being able to come to a close game and hit a home run off of them, which is something that I don’t even think that I ever imagined at all.”

A mother’s competitive lead and ‘The Look’

The Harpers are a softball family, even though parents Jim and Danielle put their two daughters in “literally everything” while growing up in Valencia, Calif. Soccer, softball, triathlons, nothing quite stuck for Jessie and younger sister MaKenna like softball.

“I think the connection of my mom playing softball drew it to me a little bit more,” Harper said, adding that Jim, who played football at Colorado, loves to help coach it.

Danielle played at Cal State Northridge, and while the girls were growing up, she placed at the top in triathlons and Ironman competitions. She was a verbal leader and one who did it by example for her girls.

“My mom instilled that super-competitive nature in us and always told us that we could do whatever we set our mind to as long as we have hard work,” Harper said. “So pretty much my parents are the pivotal driving force of what brought me here.”

There was also the pull of “The Look.” Harper would watch and attend UCLA games with her family, but the blue and gold was nothing compared to what Arizona had going on in the desert.

“Growing up, I always thought that Arizona had the best colors: the red, white and blue. You can’t get any better than that,” Harper said in a way that makes you feel the smile through the phone.

When opportunity arose in junior high, she snagged it. Arizona head coach Mike Candrea, who coached the U.S. medal-winning teams in 2004 and ’08, was in town to see a player on the 18U travel ball team Harper would practice with on Wednesday nights.

“Me being me, I was like, ‘Coach, can I have a picture?’ I was all starstruck,” Harper said. “I got to talk to him a little bit and ever since that moment I was like, ‘All right, I’m going to play for this man when I get into college. That’s where I want to go.’ ”

Harper is a two-time All-American who became the first Wildcat to lead the nation in home runs since 2009 when she slammed 29 of them last season. It’s the fourth-most in a season in school history.

As she tries to chase the all-time homers record, Harper has 7 in 20 games with more than three dozen contests left in the regular season. If she reaches 80, she’ll become one of only 10 players to hit the mark. Only three have made it to 90.

“We really let softball kind of just take us where it needed to take us,” Harper said. “And luckily, I made it here and my sister is at Arizona State playing, so we kind of we got what softball gave to us. We made it the most.”

Making it “the most” is what Harper is all about.

Shortstop Jessie Harper chose Arizona because it had 'The Look.' Now, she's in the record books. (Jacob Snow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Harper content that college softball is growing

In the immediate future, Harper has her eyes set on “going out with a bang.” She’d like the Wildcats to make it to the Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City, where they competed in 2019 following a nine-season hiatus.

“I want that to be where my last game is played,” she said. “And I just want my team to get back to the World Series. I want to win, win, win, win and have fun.”

As for what comes next, well, “that’s a whole lot of thoughts, thoughts, thoughts!”

She says she definitely wants to continue playing, so she’ll likely join the National Pro Fastpitch league this summer. The six-team league was revived in 2004 and will play a series-event schedule beginning for the first time in April. Average salaries are somewhere between $5,000 and $6,000, per reports, with few higher than $20,000.

Does that bother Harper?

“I’m just looking at it as I’m going to make the most of the situation that’s presented to me,” she said. “Yes, I do believe that males and females should be given equal opportunity to pay and I do believe that the NPF, it should be continuing to grow and get more sponsorships and get more people coming to it.

“But as of right now, I am content with the fact that the Women’s College World Series had so many ratings and so many views this year. It was the talk of the town. Whereas the men’s College World Series didn’t get as many views or as many people to tune in. So I’m excited for softball at the college level to continue to grow, but I know that there still needs some progress with NPF level for sure.” 

The college game is her present — but also, she hopes, where she’ll forge her future.

Harper’s got next in coaching

Harper plans to return to the University of Arizona in the fall and pursue a two-year master’s degree while serving as a graduate assistant with the team. She’ll develop her game, while growing as a player and coach. One day, she hopes to find a position as a Division I college softball coach where she can “be an amazing influential, inspirational woman to the next generation.”

“I really am passionate about just inspiring the next generation of female athletes, whether I can inspire a future softball player or a future basketball player,” she said. “My goal is just to get kids to be more active and just have the dream of one day playing at the college stage. I think it’s [about] just doing it for all the little girls and doing it for the little girl inside me still that always grew up wanting to play on the biggest stage.”

She plans to start after graduation by using her platform as an NCAA collegiate star and reaching out to the youth who follow her. Years down the line, whether she makes history books or not, she wants her hard work, teamsmanship, determination and effort to be what she’s remembered by.

Nothing about having fun?

“Nah. Everyone should have fun. That should just be a given,” she said.

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