By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — This season has not gone the way she hoped — or expected. UVa softball coach Eileen Schmidt readily acknowledges that.
The Cavaliers advanced to the NCAA tournament last year, a first for a program that dates to 1980. They were seeded No. 2 in the ACC tourney and finished the season with a 34-23 record after winning one game in the NCAA regional at Knoxville, Tenn.
A year later, Virginia, 21-23 overall, has a 4-10 conference record and sits seventh in the ACC.
“We had high expectations for the season, obviously, and fault or no fault, it hasn’t turned out the way we thought it would have,” Schmidt said this week.
Freshmen and sophomores dominate Schmidt’s lineup, but the Wahoos have not flipped the calendar to 2012. A year ago, they swept three games from Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. Last weekend the ‘Hoos took two of three from the Hokies at The Park, the home of UVa softball.
In the deciding game of the series, Virginia trailed 5-0 after 5½ innings. The Cavaliers rallied for three runs in the sixth and three more in the seventh to pull out a stunning 6-5 victory.
That comeback was a testament to her players’ resilience, Schmidt said. “Yeah, there was a period there where we felt sorry for ourselves [in the middle of the season],” she said. “But at the same time we’ve rebounded out of it. It’s just about getting consistent again. It almost feels like it’s the beginning of the year, because you have everybody back, and you’re trying to get consistent again.”
From its NCAA tournament team, UVa had to replace four starters: Clara Kendall, Sarah Tacke, Nicole Koren and Abby Snyder. Koren and Tacke combined for 22 of the team’s 34 home runs last year. The ‘Hoos absorbed another blow when one of their returning starters, Lauren McCaskey, had season-ending surgery this year after playing in only two games.
McCaskey is one of three seniors on the roster. The other two are Allison Pittman, who has started every game, and part-time starter Cynthia Javaras.
Throw in injuries to UVa’s top pitcher, sophomore Melanie Mitchell, and her backup, freshman Erica Cipolloni, and it’s no surprise this team has struggled at times.
“I don’t think anybody ever expects injuries,” Schmidt said. “Nor do they ever want them.”
Schmidt scheduled ambitiously this season. Still, her team started well, winning 12 of its first 18 games. “Then it wasn’t like we tail-spinned and started to play poorly,” she said. “We just hit the road bump of injuries. So, no, it hasn’t gone the way we want, but you can take it as a learning experience. It tests your mettle, for sure. And it tests your mental game and how strong you are and how you let things affect you.”
The ACC tournament starts May 12 in Atlanta. The No. 1 seed figures to be 22nd-ranked Georgia Tech, which plays at The Park this weekend. The Cavaliers host the Yellow Jackets (11-1, 37-8) in a doubleheader Friday — starting times are 5 and 7 p.m. — and at noon Saturday. Georgia Tech has won 21 consecutive ACC series.
“Obviously, this weekend’s a big weekend,” Schmidt said. “You want to get hot going into the conference tournament, and you want to be healthy going into that. I feel we’re getting to the healthy point. It’s not an excuse anyway, but you can relax a little bit and say, ‘OK, we don’t need to press as much if Mel’s healthy on the mound.’ ”
Mitchell, a right-hander, tied the school record with 27 victories in 2010 and was a first-team all-ACC selection. She’s a modest 14-12 this season — partly because of her injury, an oblique strain, and partly because she’s been inconsistent even when healthy.
Forgive Schmidt if she occasionally daydreams about 2012. The Cavaliers’ incoming recruits include pitching phenom Rachel Gillen, a left-hander from Wilmington, Del. Gillen’s arrival should relieve the pressure on Mitchell and make it easier for UVa to survive an injury to a front-line pitcher.
“On paper it’s two No. 1s, and two legitimate No. 1s,” Schmidt said. “If you have that this year, it makes a huge difference. You don’t go into that huge spiral [when Mitchell gets hurt].”
Virginia’s starters include three freshmen (Stephanie Harris, Marcy Bowdren and Cipolloni) and four sophomores (Mitchell, Alex Skinkis, Taylor Williams and Kristen Hawkins). Harris leads the ‘Hoos with a .339 batting average, and Bowdren has a team-high five home runs. The other starters include Erica Cipolloni’s sister Giannina, a junior who’s hitting .319.
“It’s exciting to know that you’re strong in the lower half of your classes, and you’re just adding on to that in the next recruiting class and the one after it,” Schmidt said. “The future looks great, but you know what? You sit there and you say, ‘Well, what about right now? Let’s do it right now.’ Because certainly the fourth-years and the third-years have put in their time, and after [making the NCAAs] last year you want them to keep going and keep extending the season.”
After this weekend, UVa will have seven regular-season games left, all on the road. The ‘Hoos are scheduled to play two at Radford and three at NC State before closing with a May 3 doubleheader at Liberty.