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Feb. 15, 2006

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – There is a renewed sense of optimism for the Virginia softball team in 2006. The reason is quite simple – the hiring of Karen Johns as the new architect of the softball program. Johns and her assistants, Carie Dever-Boaz and Iyhia McMichael, have energized the Cavaliers like never before.

Johns inherited a talented team when she was hired in the summer of 2005. The Cavaliers, who finished the 2005 season with a 31-32 overall record and a 9-8 mark in the Atlantic Coast Conference, lost just three letterwinners and one starter from the 2005 team. Among the eight returning starters are three All-ACC performers. The one starter lost to graduation, Jenn Wynn, will be difficult to replace. A three-year starting catcher, Wynn, was a first-team All-ACC selection last season and went on to earn All-Southeast Region First Team honors.

“We walked into a pretty good situation,” said Johns. “We did inherit some nice athletes, a good group of kids. The graduation loss was big, even though it was small in terms of numbers. Jenn Wynn was an impact player.

“Some players are going to have to move into new roles, provide leadership, and produce more runs for us than they have in the past,” Johns said. “I see quite a bit of potential in this group and I think they have tapped into some of that potential and are working hard towards getting ready for the season. I’m very impressed with the communication skills of the team. I think that’s our strength. They are great communicators and very hard workers, so they’ve made this transition pretty easy.”

That being said, Johns does have some concerns heading into the 2006 season. “I think the thing that stands out the most is the uncertainty in the pitching staff. At this point we have to make sure we gain and maintain the health of our pitchers. Then get a true evaluation in January and early February to decide how things are going to evolve,” Johns said. The uncertainty Johns is referring to is the health status of a couple players. Third-year Coty Tolar missed a portion of the fall season with a knee injury and red-shirt first-year Karla Wilburn is in the final stages of rehab from an arm injury.

The Cavaliers return their entire starting infield from 2005 and two of the four starters are All-ACC as well as All-Southeast Region performers. That’s the good news. The bad news is that UVa is very thin in terms of the number of infielders on the team.

Anchoring Virginia’s infield from third base is 2004 third-team All-American Sara Larquier, who is coming off an outstanding 2005 season in which she was named the ACC Player of the Year. The three-time All-ACC performer was also named to the 2005 All-Southeast Region Second Team. Larquier started all 63 games in 2005 and hit .348 (73-210) with a school-record tying 19 doubles, to go along with seven triples, eight homers and 130 total bases. She ranks among UVa’s all-time leaders in 14 statistical categories with several school records within reach.

“Sara is one of the best players I’ve ever coached – and I’ve been around some good ones,” Johns said. “She has all the elements to be a great player. She has achieved some great success in the past and there’s no reason for that not to continue. Sara is our mainstay on offense and we are looking for her to provide leadership and production in the middle of the line-up. Every day when we fill out our line-up, we start with her and then build from there.”

Virginia returns its two shortstops from last season, but unfortunately second-year Kierstie Cameron will miss the 2006 season with a shoulder injury. That means second-year Lindsey Preuss will be the Cavaliers’ everyday shortstop. The two shared the starting role at short last season.

Preuss, who played in 50 games with 35 starts, hit .296 (29-98) last season. Cameron hit .235 (23-98) as a rookie in 39 games (35 starts). Interestingly, both players had five doubles, one triple and two home runs in 2005. Preuss drove in 13 runs and scored 16 times, while Cameron tallied 15 RBI and scored five times. Cameron was also slated to be a backup at second base before being sidelined with the injury.

“Losing Kierstie for the season has put some more pressure on Lindsey Preuss,” Johns said. “Lindsey emerged as the starter at shortstop even before the injury to Kierstie. Her development both offensively and defensively has probably been the biggest of all the players this fall. The big thing for Lindsey was keeping her intact and just keeping her confidence level up. She tends to puts a lot of pressure on herself, so we’ve just tried to keep her focus on the process of improving. She’s done a great job. Once we emerge from the preseason and into the ACC season, I think we will see a really confident and great communicator at shortstop.”

The other All-Southeast Region performer returning to the infield is third-year second baseman Elea Crockett. Crockett has had outstanding seasons starting at second base her first two years as a Cavalier. In addition to earning second-team All-Region honors in 2005, Crockett was a second-team All-ACC selection. She hit a career-best and team-high .374 (70-187) last season and also led Virginia with 54 runs scored and 24 stolen bases. Crockett, who drew 24 walks and drove in 17 runs, posted a .460 slugging percentage as she notched four doubles and six triples. Her .369 career batting average ranks second all-time at UVa. In addition to her impressive offensive numbers, Crockett boasts outstanding credentials on defense with a .981 fielding percentage in 2005 with only five errors in 262 total chances.

“I think Elea is an excellent ballplayer, she’s extremely consistent,” Johns said. “She has better range than most second basemen I’ve seen and her glove is phenomenal. Elea has good arm strength for a second basemen as well. Despite already having two good years offensively, I think she’s just getting started. She’s had some pretty good numbers, but I know her numbers can build. I think we going to see her hit for a higher average this year and her on-base percentage will be better just by going through the daily workouts and learning more about what is expected of her as the leadoff hitter. I can see her becoming a great leader for us.”

At first base, two players are vying for the starting position. Third-year Brooke Sorber and second-year Whitney Holstun are UVa’s top candidates at first base after splitting playing time there last season.

Sorber began the 2005 season as UVa’s starter at first base and drew 34 of her 49 starting assignments there. Sorber started as the designated player 15 times as well. In 57 games, Sorber hit .207 (29-140) and drove in six runs while scoring 14 runs. She also registered a .988 fielding percentage (three errors in 254 total chances).

Holstun, who was pressed into pitching duties last year, started 29 games at first base in the latter portion of the season. She was UVa’s starting pitcher seven times and had two starts at designated player. In all, Holstun started 37 of the 48 games she appeared in. She hit .242 (22-91) with seven doubles, three home runs and 11 RBI.

“We are looking for either Brooke or Whitney to emerge as the starter at first base, but that hasn’t happened yet,” Johns said. “Both have made tremendous strides on defense and offense. They know going into the preseason that we need one of them to really elevate themselves and become the starter. I see both Whitney and Brooke helping us offensively, and we’ll see how that evolves. Fortunately for us we have four preseason tournaments to play before we get started with our ACC schedule, so we’ll be able to get a good look at both players.”

Catcher is the one position where Virginia lost its starter to graduation and that starter, Jenn Wynn, was a 2005 All-Region performer. Wynn hit .335 and led the team with nine home runs while earning first-team All-ACC accolades. Third-years Michelle Salmiery and Amy McKean will be asked to step up and help fill the void left by Wynn’s graduation. “Losing Jenn was obviously a big hit statistically, and from what I gather leadership-wise too. So there has been a new role placed on Michelle and Amy both,” Johns said.

Salmiery has the most starts of the two behind the plate. Last year, Salmiery recorded 17 of her 19 starts at catcher and played in 24 games. She hit .204 (10-49) and drove in four runs. She was perfect in 121 fielding chances and threw out four runners attempting to steal.

McKean played in 37 games a season ago with 22 starts, but only one at catcher. She was used primarily as a designated player, but also saw some action at third base. McKean hit .200 (16-80), but showed some power with four extra base hits (three doubles and one homer).

“I felt really good about both Michelle and Amy coming out of the fall season. Both possess great arm strength, and Michelle has an exceptional arm,” Johns said. “There were some small things in their game that they had to focus on, and I feel very confident with what we have behind the plate. I think both are going to do a great job for us. You don’t replace a Jenn Wynn, but I think what we have is going to be very consistent and very beneficial to the team. Michelle and Amy made big strides with their swings, as with all the players. There weren’t big changes to be made, it was just some fine-tuning, eliminating little mistakes throughout the swing and then making that application into scrimmages. Both have shown great power, including to the opposite field, and that’s what we need from our catchers. We need some big hits and hopefully the two combined will provide plenty of those for us.”

Virginia returns four of its outfielders from last season, including three who concluded the season as starters. Lauren Dennis, who started 48 games in left field, graduated and is the only player with starting experience in the outfield lost from last season. The Cavaliers have a number players who are competing for the three outfield spots.

“We moved the outfielders around quite a bit in the fall because we didn’t know any of them at the start of practice,” Johns said. “Because of that, they gained some great experience throughout the fall playing every position. We did that to see where our arm strengths are, where our speed is, and who gets the best jump on the ball.”

Leading the way in the outfield is fourth-year Jessica Taylor, a 2005 All-ACC second team performer. A three-year starter, Taylor has played both center and right field and is penciled in as UVa’s center fielder. In 2005, the speedy Taylor started all 63 games (44 in right and 19 in center) and hit .309 (63-204) with a career-high 15 extra-base hits (eight doubles, six triples and one homer), 12 RBI and 35 runs scored. She led the team with 10 sacrifice hits and was second with 14 stolen bases.

“We see Jessica staying in center field,” Johns said. “We think her speed gives us the best opportunity to defend in the outfield. She gets to every ball hit and that’s what we really need from that position.”

The lone first-year in the outfield, Sarah Tacke, will hold down the starting spot in right field. Tacke, a lefty, is a terrific all-around player who has good speed and will also be a key contributor offensively.

Sarah Tacke has really been a great asset in the outfield,” noted Johns. “She can hit for power, has above average speed, and has tremendous arm strength. We are pretty confident that right field is where she is going to be playing.”

Several players are vying for the starting role in left field. Among them are fourth-year Jackie Greer, third-year Meghan O’Leary and second-year Kat Mirras, who ended the 2005 season as UVa’s starter in left.

Greer is another Cavalier with loads of starting experience. She began the 2005 season as UVa’s starter in right field, the same position she held in 2004, but wound up as the Cavaliers’ regular center fielder. Greer, who has been hampered by a foot injury throughout her career, is an excellent defensive outfielder. She hit .140 last season with 14 hits and 13 walks. Greer was second on the team with eight sacrifice hits and also drove in four runs.

“Jackie was a starter in the outfield last year and has the most experience as far as three players competing for the spot in left field,” Johns noted. “She is a terrific defensive player, but unfortunately for her she’s not a hundred percent healthy.”

Johns is hoping to take advantage of O’Leary’s athleticism with her move to the outfield. O’Leary will continue to pitch for Virginia. In addition to pitching last year, O’Leary was used as a pinch runner on a number of occasions. “Meghan spent a lot of time with her pitching in the early part of the fall and then in the latter portion we gave her some reps in the outfield,” Johns said. “We started some development work and she really picked up on a lot of things. Her instincts and athleticism are great, it’s just game experience that she doesn’t have yet. Meghan’s been a really good addition for us, we love her leadership skills. We like how she plays the game, and we’d like to find a place for her on the field consistently to help us win games.”

Mirras came on strong at the end of her first-year and played some solid defense for UVa. She played in 49 games and had 23 starts among the three outfield positions, including 14 in left field. She hit .224 (15-67) with 13 runs scored. Mirras stole seven bases and was perfect on 25 fielding opportunities.

“Kat can play anywhere in the outfield, so she going to be a roamer,” Johns said. “We are really fortunate to have her. She has above average speed, which really is a bonus. Wherever we need her the most is where she’ll end up playing.”

“We haven’t really seen one player emerge as the starter in left field. Kat, Jackie and Meghan each have different strengths, but I know they all can contribute,” Johns said. “We want to make sure we have somebody that is going to be a consistent contributor.”

Third-year Lara Rodriguez has started at all three outfield spots during her career. Last season, she started three contests and played in 22 games. Rodriguez was used quite frequently as a pinch hitter and has four pinch hits in her career. Last season, she hit .129 (4-31) with five runs scored.

“Lara is another player that has really made great strides in the outfield, but we still want to see more development,” she said. “I can see her contributing a lot with her bat. She hit the ball with power this fall. She has been really consistent with her progressions, and we feel really good that she will be able to help us on offense.”

Fourth-year pitcher Erin Horn and third-year catcher Amy McKean are also candidates for playing time in the outfield when not playing their normal positions.

Virginia’s pitching staff is loaded with potential, but at the same time there are several questions surrounding the staff, namely the health of a couple pitchers. The Cavaliers return the mainstays of the staff in fourth-year Erin Horn and third-year Coty Tolar, as well as third-year Meghan O’Leary. Red-shirt first-year Karla Wilburn returns after a medical red-shirt in 2005, and UVa also welcomes first-year Madi Gore. A knee injury to Tolar in the fall as well as Wilburn’s arm injury are the cause of question marks regarding what could be one of the deepest pitching staffs in the ACC.

Horn has been one of Virginia’s top pitchers throughout her career and is tied for fifth all-time with 48 career victories. She has led the Cavaliers in wins each of her first three seasons, including a 14-win campaign in 2005. In addition, Horn posted team-best totals in appearances (38), innings pitched (179.2), strikeouts (193) and saves (2), not to mention a 2.26 ERA while compiling a 14-9 record with 16 complete games. The only weakness on Horn’s stat line is walks, as she issued 99 free passes a season ago.

“Erin has a ton of ability and is capable of winning a lot of games for us and beating some quality opponents,” Johns said. “On paper, her only downfall was giving up too many walks per game and that’s something we really focused on during the fall. We broke things down to the bare elements for her and made some progress on being consistent and not walking batters. I think she showed a true learning curve where she made dramatic improvement and then started to dip a little bit near the end of the fall workout and has now come back. We’ll add some visual training components for her and hopefully that will help, but just gaining her confidence back was a big thing. Now we have to help her apply what she has learned to game situations.”

Tolar is coming off a very impressive 2005 season in which she registered a 13-15 record and a 2.47 ERA while toeing the rubber against many of UVa’s toughest opponents. She made 36 appearances and led the staff with 30 games started. The hard-throwing Tolar tossed three shutouts among her 16 complete games and logged 178.2 innings with 111 strikeouts and only 42 walks.

“Coty was starting to come on strong before a little bit of a knee problem sidelined her mid-way through the fall season, so she didn’t get to participate in a lot of the inner-squad scrimmages,” Johns said. “Her capabilities are above and beyond just normal. She plays with heart. Coty is doing a great job in our workouts. Her strength and her conditioning level have increased, which has definitely helped her back issues that hindered her in the past. She has found a love for the game again. Her commitment level this fall has really changed her game. She’s really dedicated more time and effort into it and now just has to make that decision if she wants to take a bigger step. And when she makes the decision, you’ll see some great stuff from her. We definitely see her being a major player in our rotation.”

After a couple of years away from softball, O’Leary returned to the diamond for the 2005 season and was immediately put to work as she drew the 2005 opening-day assignment in the circle. She made six pitching appearances, including three starts last season, and registered a 1-2 record with one save and a 4.90 ERA.

“Meghan is still in the developmental stage,” Johns said. “I think not having been consistent with participating in fall workouts in the past because of her volleyball commitment has slowed her progress a little. She showed some good stuff and we see her ability to go in and get a batter out when we need it. Meghan is a tireless worker who wants to improve and we are going to continue to work with her to make that happen.”

Wilburn is the key to UVa’s pitching staff. She came to Virginia as a highly regarded player, but an arm injury forced an end to her rookie season almost before it even began. She underwent surgery in December of 2004 and sat out the 2005 season. In addition to pitching, Wilburn will play a significant role offensively as she is an equally adept hitter.

“I think Karla is going to be the pivotal player in the whole pitching staff,” Johns said. “Coming off Tommy John surgery, I think the month of February is going to be really critical for her. We are in a developmental stage where we’d like to build her up to about 21 innings a week by the time we start ACC play and right now she is on schedule. Karla has great stuff and it’s a shame she was hurt last year because it probably would have been a completely different year for this ball club because she is very talented. She plays with heart, has good pitches, changes speed, and has probably one of the better changeups of any pitcher I’ve ever been with, so we are really excited for her.”

Rounding out the staff is Gore, one of only two first-years on the team. “Madi is a completely different pitcher from any of the other pitchers on our staff,” Johns said. “She has a tremendous amount of movement and can locate her pitches very well. We definitely see Madi being a contributor in situations where we need big hitters out and ground ball outs. She makes the ball move and she’s a little deceiving because she doesn’t throw very hard.”

“We have a couple of goals for the season,” Johns said. “First of all, we want to play well at home and win all of our home games. We have the talent to make it to postseason and if we are lucky to get there, then I hope we match up well with our opponents. A lot of times its not so much where you are going, but who you match up with. Hopefully we’ll match up with some teams that we can counter their strengths, but we’d like to try and make a postseason run if we can. There are a lot of things that have to happen before that, big hurdles to overcome, but I think the players’ hard work and their commitment level is moving them in the right direction. It’s just a matter of going out and applying the things they have learned since the start of fall practice.”

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