By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In a conference in which eight schools field softball teams, UVa finished eighth in 2007, eighth in ’08 and eighth again in ’09.
And this year?
The Cavaliers will end the regular season looking up at only one team in the ACC standings: Georgia Tech.
“It’s not worst to first, but last to second, I’ll take,” Eileen Schmidt, Virginia’s third-year coach, said after a long, hot day at The Park.
“You’ve got to be proud of what they’ve accomplished this year and the things they continue to do.”
UVa (13-6, 33-19) split a doubleheader with No. 22 Florida State (11-9, 40-15) on Saturday. The Wahoos rallied to win the first game 2-1, and the Seminoles rallied to win the second 9-6.
Virginia’s victory was more significant, because it clinched second place in the ACC for Schmidt’s team, which was picked to finish seventh. The finish is the Cavaliers’ best since 1997, when the ACC was a five-team league for softball.
The series finale starts at noon Sunday.
“You always want to get all three, and getting two today would have been ideal,” UVa freshman pitcher Melanie Mitchell said Saturday, “but getting the first game is always the hardest. Because you always have that one win under your belt, and if you can win another one, then you win the series.”
Win or lose Sunday, the Wahoos almost certainly are headed to the NCAA tournanent for the first time in school history. Schmidt came into the weekend confident that the ‘Hoos would be invited regardless of the FSU series outcome, but she knew that clinching second in the ACC could only enhance her team’s rësumé.
“I feel a lot better about it now,” Schmidt said before leaving The Park on Saturday.
“It’s a feel-good story. When you finish second in the conference, and you have No. 22 Florida State behind you and you have North Carolina behind you, you’re feeling pretty dang good about what you’re doing and where your team’s sitting.”
Mitchell is well-versed in UVa’s softball tradition — or lack thereof — but she’s never experienced the hard times. For her older teammates, this season “is like heaven,” Mitchell said. “They’ve worked so hard.”
And now the ‘Hoos are reaping the benefits of that work. If they beat FSU on Sunday, the Cavaliers will have won all of their ACC series this season except one. Georgia Tech swept UVa in Atlanta last month.
“Like I’ve said before, we don’t have pretty stats,” Schmidt said. “We’re not killing you. Even Mel’s ERA isn’t going to blow you out of the water. But the thing is, we just keep finding ways to win, and that’s the important part.”
Schmidt’s three seniors — Nicole Koren, Sarah Tacke and Abby Snyder — will be honored after Sunday’s game.
“We knew [the turnaround] was coming,” Koren said. “We didn’t know how soon it was coming, so this is obviously amazing for us, for our seniors, with what we’ve been through in the past few years.
“We’re more than excited that it’s happening now when we’re here and we’re all contributing to the way we’ve been playing.”
Koren leads the team with 12 home runs. No. 12 may have secured a spot in the NCAAs for UVa. In the fourth inning of Saturday’s opener, Koren ripped a two-run shot over the left-field wall to make it 2-1.
Mitchell did the rest. In collecting her 26th win — the 6-1 right-hander needs one more to tie UVa’s single-season record — Mitchell struck out six and allowed only four hits.
In the second game, Schmidt started Stephanie Coates in the circle but called for Mitchell with the score 4-4 and two outs in the fourth.
It might have been the unseasonably warm conditions, or perhaps FSU simply had too much firepower to be denied for a second straight game. Whatever the reason, Mitchell struggled in relief, and the ‘Noles broke the game open with four runs in the sixth.
“That’s a learning experience,” Schmidt said.
Mitchell said: “It was probably the first time all year, other than being at LSU, that we’ve had to deal with temperatures about 90, and the humidity was pretty bad. The first game was pretty good. The second game, I don’t know what happened there. I was wearing down.”
She smiled. “I just need a new rosin bag, and I should be good to go [Sunday].”
After the regular-season finale, the ‘Hoos are off until the single-elimination ACC tournament, May 14 at Virginia Tech. Next would be the NCAA tourney.
“We always had a shot if we put everything together and everyone was on the same page,” Mitchell said. “We could go places. We knew that coming in. But to see it actually happening and unfolding, it’s amazing.”