By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — All-ACC pitcher Melanie Mitchell and her fellow freshmen haven’t experienced the hard times. In their first season of college softball, they’re part of a team that finished second in the ACC.
UVa’s veterans, however, remember all too well the pain of placing eighth in the eight-team league.
The team’s current seniors were part of last-place teams in 2007, ’08 and ’09. Which explains why designated player Nicole Koren, third baseman Abby Snyder and right-fielder Sarah Tacke have had “perma-grins on their faces” all week, as third-year coach Eileen Schmidt put it Wednesday.
Virginia, which was picked to finish seventh, ended up second in the ACC. Then, late Sunday night, after an anxious wait, UVa received its first-ever invitation to the NCAA tournament.
“Oh, my gosh,” Snyder said Wednesday, “it feels great … awesome … fantastic. It’s hard to even explain how great it feels.”
The Cavaliers’ debut in the NCAA tourney comes Friday in Knoxville, Tenn. Virginia (33-21), the No. 3 seed in the four-team regional, meets No. 2 seed Louisville (39-17) at 4 p.m. No. 1 seed Tennessee (42-13), the host team, takes on No. 4 seed Ball State (43-14) at 6:30 p.m.
Schmidt, a former UVa star, delights in her team’s NCAA bid. “But you know what?” she said. “The cool part is, some people might be satisfied with just getting there, and we’re certainly happy to make that jump, but I think [the players are] excited to do better and do more.”
Tacke said: “I think that’s really important for us, to not just be excited to be there, but to have a game plan that’s going to win us some games and really keep us in there focused and working hard.”
The Wahoos enter the NCAAs on a three-game losing streak. After taking the opener of their series with Florida State at The Park, the ‘Hoos dropped the next two games, after leading in each one.
Virginia never led in the ACC tournament. Against Virginia Tech in the first round, UVa lost 1-0 in eight innings. In the fourth, the sixth and again in the seventh, the Cavaliers had runners on second and third. None made it home, and so the ‘Hoos lost to an opponent they’d swept in Blacksburg during the regular season.
“All year long, somebody’s stepped up and we got a big hit, and we capitalized on other people’s mistakes and we caught breaks here and there,” Schmidt said. “And we certainly had our opportunities in that Virginia Tech game. We just didn’t get it done.
“I’m not really that worried about it. We’ve done a good job all year of rebounding off of tough losses and big wins.”
As an assistant coach, first at South Carolina and then at Arkansas, Schmidt was part of NCAA tournament teams. This is her first trip to the NCAAs as a head coach, though, and she got some advice from her counterpart at North Carolina the other day.
“She said, ‘You know, it hasn’t changed any. You need to win the first game [to avoid falling immediately into the losers’ bracket],’ ” Schmidt recalled.
“Whether it’s baseball, where you’re trying not to deplete your staff, or it’s softball, where you’re trying not to deplete that one [pitcher], you only want to play one a day. You want to keep that kid fresh.”
Schmidt was head coach at Kentucky for three seasons before returning to her alma mater, so she’s familiar with the Louisville program. She said the Cardinals’ style of “play is very similar to ours … On paper it should be a good game.”
Final exams ended last week at UVa, and most students have long since left town. In other years, the softball team would have packed up its equipment by now.
“It’s so awesome to still be practicing,” Tacke said. “Just the feeling that it’s not over and we could still be playing for a couple more weeks, that’s way cool. I don’t even know how else to describe it.”
Tacke’s coach is excited too, though she and her players “knew we were going to have a better year than what we’ve had in the past,” Schmidt said.
“How can you not? We were eighth place. There’s nowhere to go but up. We knew the pieces were starting to fall into place, and we were waiting for that. You keep pushing, you keep working, for it all to come together, and this year it happens. It’s been a pretty cool ride.”