By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — LSU wanted Melanie Mitchell. So did Northwestern, another perennial power in college softball. So what did the heralded pitcher from White Plains, Md., do?
She chose Virginia, a school that never has reached the NCAA tournament in softball.
“A lot of people questioned why I would want to go to UVa,” Mitchell said Thursday at The Park, the team’s field.
“I really, really wanted to go some place where I could help them achieve something.”
And that’s exactly what she’s doing. Thanks in large part to the pitching prowess of Mitchell, a 6-1 freshman, UVa softball is emerging from the shadows in an athletics department stocked with teams that routinely compete for ACC and, in some cases, NCAA championships.
A season ago, Eileen Schmidt’s second as coach at her alma mater, UVa went 2-15 in ACC play and 25-21 overall. After beating No. 22 North Carolina on Friday night in the opener of a three-game series at The Park, Virginia is 6-0, 20-13. The teams will play a doubleheader Saturday, starting at 1 p.m.
“It’s fun,” Schmidt said this week, “because you can see where we’re still kind of missing some pieces.”
Virginia’s other victims include then-No. 4 Michigan, then-No. 23 Louisiana-Lafayette and then-No. 2 Arizona. The Cavaliers, who were picked to finish next-to-last in the ACC, swept a three-game series with Virginia Tech in Blacksburg last weekend. Then they traveled Wednesday to Harrisonburg, where they beat James Madison 5-4.
“It puts you on a little bit of a roll, definitely from a confidence standpoint, but at the same time, we’ve got a long way to go,” said Schmidt, who was the ACC player of the year as a UVa junior in 1993. “It’s a long season.”
Schmidt inherited a team that in 2007, Virginia’s second and final season under Karen Johns, won only one ACC game. That her team is starting to play well doesn’t surprise Schmidt.
“Usually it’s the third year that things kind of turn around a little bit,” she said. “But to be honest with you, with the way the schedule played out, I wasn’t quite sure that we would have the success we’ve had right away, because it’s easily a top-10 RPI schedule, which is something I don’t think they’ve played here in a long, long, long time.
“And we’re young. So sometimes we’ve had some real great moments, and we’ve had some really interesting moments, for sure. But that’s part of, I think, the growing pains that we’re going through. We’ll get it. We’ll figure it out.”
Virginia’s roster includes only three seniors: Abby Snyder, Sarah Tacke and Nicole Koren, who leads the team with nine home runs and is also the No. 2 pitcher. Koren homered twice Friday night against UNC.
Mitchell, The Washington Post’s player of the year as a McDonough High senior in 2009, is 16-9, with 182 strikeouts. And she’s doing it while balancing softball with her responsibilities as a student in UVa’s engineering school.
“Now the great thing about her is, I don’t even think she’s there yet,” Schmidt said. “She’s just getting better and better. So that’s the positive down the line.”
For the ‘Hoos to join the ACC’s elite in softball, Schmidt said, they need more depth in the field and another strong pitcher.
“You have one solid one, a Melanie Mitchell-type kid that’s going to carry you,” Schmidt said. “And really, if you look across the country, all the top-25 teams have one that throws 75 percent of their games. What you want is that second one to spell her midweek and in the second game of a series.”
At the plate, Schmidt said, the Cavaliers are “streaky. We’re very smart, so we have a tendency, being from this school, to try to think our way out of things, when you want athletes to kind of be a little more dumb, you know.
“Again, that’s part of what we’re going through, as far as making the turn. And you can see it come together in spurts.”
Schmidt was head coach at Northwestern State for two years before taking over the program at Kentucky. After three seasons at UK, Schmidt heard the call of her alma mater and couldn’t resist. There are many advantages, she said, to being back at UVa.
“The recruiting here actually is a little bit easier, because of the academic pull,” Schmidt said. “Where I couldn’t sniff some kids in the SEC, all of the sudden those kids, like a Melanie Mitchell, are interested in UVa because of the academics.”
Virginia, No. 4 in the latest Directors’ Cup standings, is especially strong in the Olympic sports. Already this academic year, UVa has won ACC titles in men’s soccer, women’s swimming, men’s swimming and wrestling. Virginia is currently ranked No. 1 nationally in men’s lacrosse, men’s tennis and baseball, and rowing is No. 2.
Schmidt sees reminders of her colleagues’ success every time she enters the McCue Center.
“When you walk in the door, and you walk by everybody’s offices, there’s just trophy after trophy after trophy after trophy,” she said. “And you know what? You can sit there and say, ‘Man, we need to start pulling our weight a little bit.’
“And we talk about that as a team, because we’re so close to the Directors’ Cup, and we’re one of the sports that if we make a jump and do the things we’re supposed to do, we get more points.”
Mitchell said: “Pulling our weight in the Directors’ Cup is definitely a big incentive.”
The Cavaliers’ first appearance in the NCAA softball tournament may not come this season, but Schmidt is confident her program will get there. Neither the coaches nor the players lack motivation.
“We just want to win games and prove to people that we’re not the same old Virginia,” Mitchell said.