Q&A with Eileen Schmidt
Third-year head coach Eileen Schmidt and the Virginia softball team made history in 2010, earning the program’s first NCAA Tournament bid. Schmidt recently caught up with VirginiaSports.com to look back on the season and look ahead to the future.
Question: Now that you’ve had time to reflect a little bit, what would you say about the season?
Schmidt: I think once you get over the initial loss, and you get a chance to sit back and take stock of the year, what the team accomplished and where the program has gone – I think everyone related and invested in our program has said what a great year it has been. What a positive experience it has been after two extremely difficult years of getting your tail handed to you in an effort to right the ship. It was and is a lot of hard work, a lot of effort, people putting aside personal goals for the collective team, and I think that came together and showed this year. I’m so very proud of our players and staff.
Question: How did you handle the outside expectations, whether it was a lack thereof or pressure to make the turn?
Schmidt: I don’t know if we ever truly worry about outside expectations. It’s pretty evident you cannot please everyone. Shoot, you could win the national championship and there are always going to be people not on your bandwagon. So, as a team we focus on us and eliminate the outside white noise. Good or bad, outside criticism is just draining anyway. This team knows what they did everyday to get this program going in the right direction, so I think our expectations can never be matched from the outside – ours are pretty high. Now, the hard part for us is balancing our own expectations as we can continue to succeed.
Question: How do you use what you did this year to motivate and prepare? How do you take the next step forward?
Schmidt: I have always been a proponent of competition as a motivator. If you need a coach or teammate to constantly motivate you, you probably do not belong attending the University of Virginia. Three years ago, we just were not very competitive; on the field, in the classroom, in the weight room, with each other in a healthy way, you name it. Of all the areas of our program, I think that area has seen the most significant change.
We had some great meetings as a whole group and individually at the end of the year. What we found were most of the team came in here, if not all of them, and automatically went to what we didn’t do well. It’s right after the end of the season so you want them to be excited about what they did and how great of an accomplishment it was, but at the same time they sit there and say, “these 20 games if we had just gotten this bunt down, if I had gotten a ground ball here, or if we would have been more aggressive on the bases in this game, that would have been 20 more wins, and we’d probably still be playing.” That’s the cool part about where we are. They see how great they did, and how much better they are, but then they saw points where we could have been a lot better than what we finished. Those are good “what if’s” or “could of’s”, those are the steps forward they have already begun to take. Maturity does amazing things.
Question: Was it satisfying for you that this program finally contributed to the point totals that figure into the Director’s Cup?
Schmidt: There’s always something bigger than you. You have individuals and you have the team, and if you think about it, we’re kind of an individual within this department. You want your program to do well, but you also want to contribute to make the entire department better. Softball really hasn’t done that, and it’s hard because every program here is so good. I think when you’re a top-5 academic institution, publicly, and you’re top-5 in the Director’s Cup, there’s not a lot of schools that match that anywhere in the nation, and I think that’s an awesome goal for Coach Littlepage and the rest of the administration. You want to do your part to help everyone get there. So we want to do our part and get better every year. It’s cool to be a participator with some unbelievable programs. If you look at swimming, tennis, men’s and women’s lacrosse, soccer and rowing, it’s amazing the traditions that they have. Where those programs are continuing to add on to their traditions, we are in the interesting position of just starting ours, of making our own history. What great programs to have as role models. It’s fun to watch and it’s fun to be a part of.
Question: Going back to the first game of the Knoxville Regional, how did a lot of the players feel stepping on to that field for the first time?
Schmidt: I was kind of shocked at how composed we were for being so young. I know my players, and they’ve been composed all year in tight games like the Arizona game and the Michigan game. There were a handful of first-timers programs making their NCAA debut around the country. To see how we approached and played our game the same way we had all year was a very mature response for our team and to be honest, pretty typical. We knew we belonged. All year this team has been very grounded in their emotions, nothing was ever too high or too low.To perform on the NCAA stage the way we did, against teams that have been there consistently, says a lot about our players and where our program is headed.
Saturday was both good and not great, but the cool part about Saturday, up until the fifth inning of the Tennessee game we were in that game. We made a little mistake, which you can’t do at that level, and one of their big guns comes up and makes us pay. That was the not great part, but it was a teaching experience. The cool part about playing teams like that in a situation like that, big players rise up. We’ve had that at times throughout the season where we’ve had people step up and make a big defensive play, or make a big hit, or get a big strikeout, and now you’re facing people that do it consistently in the clutch with all the pressure. It was a tough regional, a pretty well matched regional, and look at Tennessee’s finish. To be honest, the way we finished the late game Saturday against Louisville, I was probably more proud of them in that situation than I had been all season. The whole game we were ripping shots right at people not catching a break. Down 7-0 in the seventh they could have easily cashed in and we didn’t. We still pushed and got it to 7-4 with offensive pressure. I felt like we were still in it and pushed them farther and farther on their heels. We just ran out of time.
Question: What are you working on, short-term goals for the summer and looking ahead to fall?
Schmidt: We lost Sarah Tacke, Nicole Koren and Abby Snyder, three of our traditional power kids. But, since I first got here, this group has bought into a team concept and an athletic concept. Where we can’t rely on those three for the “big shot” anymore, we now become more of a blue collar group. This past season, even with those three, was a shift to a more athletic style. We ran more, we had better bat control (even with a tough schedule), we moved runners, we got on base with hits, walks, hard shots, etc. We became much more game and decision smart, where they picked their spots to steal or bunt or hit and run. We found ways of manufacturing offense from an aggressive, good dirty sort of way and for them it did not really matter how we did it as long as we won. The returners continue to get better with experience and the addition of a very impressive 2010 class just keeps us headed in the right direction.
Question: Turning your focus to recruiting, what kind of kids are you looking for when you’re out there recruiting? What kinds of people are you trying to bring in?
Schmidt: First and foremost they have to fit the University. Every school, every coach, and every program is different and not everyone belongs at one place or another. You have to go out and find a fit. From a school perspective, it is really tough here. It is so competitive academically, socially, athletically, you name it. The best of the best that thrive on competition attend this University. But, attending the University of Virginia also is one of the most rewarding four-year experiences a student can partake in. Anyone who has watched our group play or spent any social time with us, knows I like kids with big personalities, who are diverse, and by diverse I mean not afraid to be themselves. The thing I find most impressive in this group is how so very different they are, yet how welcoming they are to each other. I do not think there is one kid that is similar on this team. They are not afraid to make decisions, or work hard, or set goals that seem unattainable from the outside or be quirky. UVa students are classic perfectionists in all areas of their lives. The hard part is teaching them to balance their lives, handle failure with a big bounce back, and enjoy the great moments and experiences that are happening all around them.
Question: What are you up to this summer?
Schmidt: Recruiting. It starts this week. I’m not sure what else I’m going to do yet. I think everyone in this office just wants to get through the July camps and take a break before school starts. I see sand in my future and I don’t mean Hemet, Calif., sand, I mean sand with ocean water lapping up on it.