By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Their rapport is so natural, their mutual respect so apparent, it’s easy to forget that freshman Rachel Gillen and junior Melanie Mitchell are vying for playing time at the same position on the University of Virginia softball team: pitcher.
“It could be a bad competitive situation, but it’s been a really good competitive situation,” UVa coach Eileen Schmidt said, “as far as pushing Mel to get better, and Rachel having somebody to look at and see how it’s done.”
Mitchell, a 6-1 right-hander from White Plains, Md., was the Cavaliers’ No. 1 starter in 2010 and ’11. Mitchell, who made the All-ACC first team as a freshman, has started the most games for Virginia this season, too, but the addition of Gillen has given Schmidt another formidable option on the mound.
“They’re completely two different pitchers,” Schmidt said. “Rachel is a little bit more of a power kid, while Mel lives on that offspeed [pitch] to keep people off balance, which makes her hard stuff seem a lot harder. But it’s interesting, because they do complement each other really well.”
A 5-9 left-hander from Wilmington, Del., Gillen ranks among the most celebrated recruits in the history of UVa’s program. At Archmere Academy, Gillen compiled a 69-10 record, with a 0.31 earned-run average, in her four seasons on the varsity. She was Delaware’s Gatorade player of the year three times.
“She’s definitely a great asset this year,” Mitchell said. “My first year coming in, there was really no pitcher who had had a substantial amount of innings for me to look up to or to draw experience from, but I feel like I’m here for Rachel, she’s here for me, she pushes me, I push her, and we just try to compete every day and get better. And it’s good having another No. 1-caliber pitcher on your staff.”
Mitchell, a systems engineering major, has started 19 games this season, and she’s 13-7, with a 1.50 ERA. She typically starts the first and third games of an ACC series.
“As a first-year I value [the view from the dugout],” Gillen said, “because it gives me the opportunity to watch Mel and watch the other pitchers and really study the game. Of course I want to be out there throwing, but I take it as a learning experience and take it as a positive.”
Through 14 starts, Gillen has a 5-6 record and a 3.76 ERA. For a pitcher who rarely lost in high school, her first college season has “definitely been humbling,” Gillen said.
“Throughout my entire career, though, I’ve made sure to stay humble and not expect anything, know that I have to earn everything, and this whole season I’ve had to earn everything,” she said. “I’ve had some rough patches, but it’s part of being a first-year, it’s part of college. I just have to keep working hard. I know Mel has my back. I know the whole team has my back, and the coaching staff, and as long as I keep working towards the goal I’ll be fine.”
Schmidt said: “It’s just the growth piece of it, and the maturity piece of it, at this point. If Rachel had come in right away and had super success, I’m not sure we would get as far as with her coming in, kind of getting beat up a little bit, and learning and getting better and growing as a pitcher.”
Gillen said she’s discovered that in Division I a pitcher doesn’t “get away with anything. In high school, and even the high level of travel ball that Mel and I played, you could get away with the littlest thing. You miss a pitch by an inch, and you can be OK. But you do that here and, as I’ve learned, [the ball] goes out pretty quickly.”
As a freshman, Mitchell went 27-18, with a 2.86 ERA, to help the Wahoos advance to the NCAA tournament for the first time. But she had rough moments in 2010, too, so she can empathize with Gillen.
“I would say the biggest different between high school and college is the mental edge and being precise with your pitches,” Mitchell said. “If you throw 99 out of 100 perfect pitches, and you throw the one and they hit it and you lose 1-0, it’s still a good day, but it’s frustrating that that one pitch can make the difference in a game.”
A strained oblique marred Mitchell’s sophomore season. She went 17-17, with a 3.29 ERA, and the ‘Hoos struggled in 2011 too, finishing 24-31.
“It was definitely frustrating,” Mitchell said. “We tried everything in the book to get back on page, but it just didn’t quite work out.”
This season has gone better for the ‘Hoos, whose regular starters include only one senior, center fielder Giannina Cipolloni. Virginia is 19-14 overall and 5-4 in the ACC heading into its three-game series with No. 23 North Carolina (24-10, 3-3) at The Park this weekend.
UVa and UNC are scheduled to meet at 6 p.m. Friday and then, in a doubleheader, at noon and 2 p.m. Saturday.
“I think we’re pretty evenly matched,” Schmidt said. “I expect tight games. It could very well come down to who makes the mistake for the other team to win, because we’re both pretty solid teams.”
Virginia is 2-1 in ACC series this season, having beaten Georgia Tech and Boston College and lost to Florida State. A series win over UNC would significantly enhance UVa’s postseason résumé.
“We’ve had the taste of the NCAAs,” Mitchell said, “and we definitely want to go back.”