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Virginia returns 13 letterwinners, including six starters, from the team that went 34-23 a year ago, finished second in the ACC standings and qualified for the program’s first NCAA Tournament.

Among UVa’s returning starters are three sophomores – pitcher Melanie Mitchell, infielder Alex Skinkis and outfielder Taylor Williams. Junior outfielder Giannina Cipolloni and seniors Lauren McCaskey, an infielder, and Alison Pittman, a catcher, also return to the starting lineup for head coach Eileen Schmidt, who is in her fourth season.

Schmidt also welcomes back senior Cynthia Javaras (OF), juniors Kennedy Byxbee (IF), Stephanie Coates (P), Rachel Harvey (IF), Alexa Martinez (IF/OF) and sophomores Lauren Didlake (IF) and Kristen Hawkins (C) from a year ago.

“So far in the preseason we are still in the honeymoon phase,” Schmidt said. “Everybody is still jazzed. Everybody is still excited. Obviously, we came off our most successful year ever last year, so everyone is pumped up to build on that. Every year is a new year, so you have to start all over and prove yourself again.”

In addition to the 13 returning players, Schmidt has also brought six new faces to the 2011 roster, including Marcy Bowdren (C/IF), Erica Cipolloni (IF/P), Kate Fowler (OF), Stephanie Harris (IF/OF), Karli Johnson (IF) and Alexandra Rodriguez (OF).

The three seniors – Javaras, McCaskey and Pittman – will serve as Virginia’s tri-captains for this season.

“Those three were in the original class when I got here,” Schmidt said of the captains. “They have stuck out the hard times. They have bought into the system, and really the system that they bought into has become their system. They have been our foundation –

a new style and a new attitude – so you have to fully appreciate the fact that they have fully put in their hard knocks and are reaping the benefits.”

Melanie Mitchell made her debut in a Cavalier uniform last season, helping guide the team to many program firsts. A first-team NFCA all-south region selection and first-team All-ACC honoree, Mitchell tied the school record for wins in a season (27) while also pacing the conference in innings pitched (286.2), strikeouts looking (79) and appearances (49). She finished the year with a 2.86 ERA and 295 strikeouts, a mark that ranked third in the conference, and will look to build on her first season of successes.

“Mel is going to have to bring something a little different this year,” Schmidt said. “It is a new year and everyone is going to be geared up and ready to go off of what she did last year. I think she knows that. She is a smart kid on the mound.”

Junior Stephanie Coates returns for her third year in the circle and has over 117 innings of experience in her two previous seasons. Coates boasts an 8-5 career mark in the circle and will be a solid option once again behind Mitchell.

“She has put in her time for two years and gotten much, much better,” Schmidt said of Coates. “I think she understands her strengths and weaknesses better than she did her first two years. I expect her to have a good year.”

Freshman Erica Cipolloni joins the pitching staff this season and will give Virginia a little more flexibility and depth at this key position. though she doesn’t have much experience there. Cipolloni will also likely see time at third when she’s not pitching.

“Erica hasn’t thrown much,” Schmidt said. “She threw one year in high school, but she will spend some time there, and she will swing the bat.”

Both of Virginia’s catchers from a year ago – Alison Pittman and Kristen Hawkins – return behind the plate. Pittman is a three-year starter at catcher, while also previously seeing a little time in left field, making four starts there a year ago. As a junior in 2010, Pittman saw action in 50 games with 39 starts behind the plate.

Hawkins, a sophomore, made 16 starts at catcher last season, and will look to gain more experience behind the plate in 2011. Newcomer Marcy Bowdren, one of the most versatile players on the roster, could also see time there.

“Alison has caught for three years and has done a really good job,” Schmidt said. “Leadership-wise, she has grown a lot behind the plate. Kristen is probably one of the most talented kids that we have – she just needs a little more experience. Marcydoes a very good job of running the field from what we have seen this fall.”

Virginia returns the right side of the infield in sophomore Alex Skinkis and senior Lauren McCaskey, but the Cavaliers have two spots on the left side to fill after the departures of four-year starter Abby Snyder at third and two-year starter Clara Kendall at short.

McCaskey is back at first base for her third season; she started at first as a freshman in 2008 and a junior last season while playing second base during her sophomore campaign. Also expected to see time at first base is junior Alexa Martinez and freshman Stephanie Harris.

“Lauren has pretty much spent her time there and has been solid for us,” Schmidt said. “Alexa has come back in great shape and really put her time in the fall and preseason. Stephanie is one of the newcomers and she might spend a little time in the outfield along with first base.”

Skinkis started 55 games at second base a year ago but could also see significant time at shortstop this season, replacing the shoes of Kendall. Bowdren is expected compete for the starting job at second base.

“Obviously, the second basemen do a lot and run our infield for us,” Schmidt said. Alexwas there for us a lot last year as a first year and she does a good job. She has good range and knows where everybody should be. She provides a very common leadership on the field. Marcyhasn’t played second base much in the past but is a very good second baseman and very good third baseman.”

In addition to Skinkis, junior Kennedy Byxbee will also see time at short. Byxbee played in 33 games in her first season as a Cavalier a year ago, including three starts in the middle infield. Sophomore Lauren Didlake should also figure into the mix.

“Kennedy can hold down the shortstop spots,” Schmidt continued. “She plays a nice blue collar defense and she can swing the bat. Lauren is the kid that has probably made the most improvement from last year at this time to this year.”

Junior Rachel Harvey is the only returnee with any experience at third, having played there in six games a year ago. Several new faces will compete with her for the starting spot, including Bowdren, Erica Cipolloni, Harris and Johnson.

“Erica has done a good job at third base,” Schmidt said. “Rachel had a lot of missed practice time in the fall because of her responsibilities in the Commerce school, but at the same time, she got a lot of individual time and has really made big improvements. Karli, as one of our newcomers, is really surprising. She has really picked up on stuff very well.”

Virginia returns two of its three outfielders from a year ago in Williams, who started 56 games, the majority in left, and Giannina Cipolloni, who is a two-year starter in center. The Cavaliers will look for someone to step in and play right field after the graduation of Sarah Tacke, though senior Cynthia Javaras has some experience there.

Also expected to see some time in the outfield will be Pittman, Harris and Kate Fowler.

“Our outfield is very fast,” Schmidt said. “We are returning two starters and Cynthia certainly had a great preseason. Alison will spend a little time out there because we are deep in the catching position, so she won’t have to catch every game. Both Stephanie and Kate are two newcomers who have done a good job out there and are getting better.”

Schmidt will have many options when filling out the lineup card this season, both defensively and when it comes to who steps up to the plate. Though the departures of Koren, Snyder and Tacke leaves Virginia without much of its power from last season, Schmidt knows that her personnel is more than capable of scoring runs.

Skinkis’ .264 average from a year ago is the highest of the returnees, followed by Pittman (.254) and Williams (.246), two of several slappers on the Virginia roster. Hawkins (.239, four HR) returns with the most power, but the expectations are high for the freshman class to contribute in that way as well.

“I feel pretty good offensively,” Schmidt said. “We can manufacture some runs a little bit better as a unit than what we did last year. We are more of a full unit and are going to have to use the whole lineup to do what we need to do.

“From a slapping perspective, there are four – Alison Pittman, Alexandra Rodriguez, Giannina Cipolloni, and Taylor Williams – who have done a good job of working off each other,” Schmidt continued. “They have learned a lot this year and I believe they will be able to work as a slappingunit whether you go 9-1-2 or you mix it up a different way.”

A tough schedule proved to be key a year ago. Virginia racked up wins over No. 2 Arizona and No. 4 Michigan, two of 16 games against ranked opponents during the regular season. This year, the Cavaliers have another tough non-conference schedule waiting.

Of the NCAA Tournament participants from last season, 2011 opponents Arizona and Hawaii played in the Women’s College World Series, with the Wildcats advancing onto the championship series. Virginia will face both of those teams on the same day at the Cathedral City Classic in Palm Springs, Calif., in late February.

Four more opponents – Brigham Young, Louisiana-Lafayette, Oregon and Alabama – all participated in the Super Regionals. East Carolina, Hofstra, Fresno State, Illinois State, Long Island, Syracuse and Radford were in NCAA Regional brackets last season.

“Our non-conference schedule is nasty,” Schmidt said. “When you enter tournaments like the Cathedral City Classic, you just don’t know what schedule you are going to get. You know it is going to be tough because all of the teams that are there are tough. I think it helped us a lot last year. This year is a tougher schedule than last year, but it’s exciting. If you’re going to do it, do it.”

In the ACC, Virginia was one of five teams to earn a NCAA berth a year ago, joining Maryland, North Carolina, Florida State and Georgia Tech.

“I like the ACC – it’s a young conference,” Schmidt said. “Kind of like us, I feel like everybody’s first year players are very talented. I think the ACC is definitely going to be up for grabs and that is the cool thing about it.”

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