April 27, 2013

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — That Melanie Mitchell was talented enough to stamp her name in the softball record book at UVa was apparent to head coach Eileen Schmidt almost from the pitcher’s first day on Grounds.

Midway through Mitchell’s first year, however, it “was more like, `Is this kid going to make it?’ ” Schmidt recalled.

Mitchell, a graduate of McDonough High in southern Maryland, was struggling under the weight of her academic and athletic obligations. A student in UVa’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, she was also the No. 1 pitcher on a team that would advance to the NCAA tournament.

“That first year was tough,” Schmidt said. “It’s hard if you’re an athlete. It’s hard if you’re an engineer. Then match it up and it’s extremely overwhelming. And she was 17 when she got here. She reached a point where she was like, `I’m quitting engineering,’ and I’m like, `No, you’ll quit softball before you quit engineering this year. ‘ ”

Schmidt proved persuasive. “She talked to me and she was like, `I know this is really what you want to do. I think you’re going to make a mistake if you switch out,’ ” Mitchell recalled. “She called me up one day and she really convinced me to stay in it, and I’m so glad she did.”

One of Mitchell’s teammates, senior Lauren Didlake, is a civil-engineering major. In general, though, Mitchell rarely encounters other student-athletes in the E-School. Her college experience has been fun, but also “very intense and time-consuming,” she said.

In her major, Mitchell said, “I probably have three or four group meetings a week, and they usually occur at 9 or 10 p.m., because that’s the only time I’m really free. It’s very group intensive. Third-year, I had to miss practice three out of the four days of the week, because it conflicted with class. That wasn’t very conducive to me being a leader, but this year I’ve been able to make all the practices, so that’s really helped.”

Schmidt smiled when asked about Mitchell’s class schedule.

“What I am I going to say, `No, you can’t be an engineer?’ It’s crazy. I want [players] there every day,” Schmidt said. “But if you’re going to be somebody that misses practice, it’s almost better to be a pitcher. You can come and get your workouts, and she did come in. When she was able to be there, it would be a day that we’d scrimmage. So she’d get [to face] live batters. And if we could get her into the weight room when we were in the weight room, it gave us a little bit of leadership that way. Because she’s a beast. She works. Out on the field, in the weight room, she gets after it.”

Mitchell will graduate next month with a bachelor’s degree in systems engineering. She doesn’t have to worry about finding a job. She’s accepted a position with Virginia Diodes Inc., a Charlottesville-based company that, according to its website, designs, manufactures and sells millimeter wave and terahertz devices, components and systems.

“I should be here for another at least three or four years,” Mitchell said. “I love it here. I’ve spent the last three summers here, and it’s so different to get that experience of not just being a student. The summers are amazing.”

As a McDonough High senior, Mitchell went 19-0 with a 0.00 earned-run average — that’s not a misprint — and was named The Washington Post’s All-Metro player of the year.

She’ll leave UVa as the most accomplished pitcher in the program’s history. Mitchell, the first Cavalier to record at least 200 strikeouts in four seasons, holds school records for career wins (78), strikeouts (1,080), complete games (114), innings pitched (922), appearances (158) and starts (141).

Mitchell is one of only seven pitchers in ACC history to strike out 1,000 batters during her career.

“It’s exciting to see that I’ve been able to accomplish so much in these four years,” Mitchell said. “I knew I’d get a lot of opportunities to pitch. Coming in first year, I was just used to pitching a lot, so it really didn’t faze me.”

In 2010, she tied the school record with 27 victories, made the All-ACC first team and helped the Wahoos earn their first-ever invitation to the NCAA tournament.

An oblique injury hindered Mitchell in 2011, but she returned to form as a junior and made the All-ACC second team. This season, she’s 15-15 with a 2.45 ERA. Mitchell, a right-hander, has fanned 249 and walked only 32 in 197 innings this year, and had received she even modest run support, her record would be much better. But injuries have ravaged the `Hoos this spring, and many of Mitchell’s best performances have gone unrewarded.

Still, she believes she’s a better pitcher than when she arrived at UVa, especially in her mental approach.

“Your first year you’re kind of thrown into the fire, and you don’t really grasp the concept that you can’t put it anywhere near the plate, right down the middle,” she said. “Even the sides of the plate. You just can’t throw there, because people can hit it. And you have to be mentally prepared for, `OK, I might have my best stuff, but these girls practice every day to hit my best stuff.’ You can’t always win.”

That the Cavaliers haven’t sustained the success they enjoyed in 2010 has been frustrating, Mitchell said. UVa finished 24-31 in 2011 and 26-25 last year.

“We thought we were going to be able to just build every year,” Mitchell said, “but we’ve faced some obstacles, some personnel things. It’s been rough, but we’ve just tried to get through it.”

A year ago, it “always felt like we were just so close,” Mitchell said. “We had a lot of games where we would lose by one or two runs, and it just always felt like we were right there, but never really got over the threshold on that one.”

Next up for UVa (20-25 overall, 3-15 ACC) is a three-game series with Virginia Tech (29-15, 6-8) at The Park. The rivals will play a doubleheader Sunday, starting at noon, and then meet Monday at 7 p.m. in a game ESPNU will televise.

Mitchell usually pitches the first and third games of an ACC series, with freshman Aimee Chapdelaine handling the middle game. Schmidt said Mitchell has excelled as a mentor to Chapdelaine and another freshman pitcher, Emma Mitchell (no relation).

Chapdelaine is expected to take over as UVa’s No. 1 starter next season. Mitchell may well be at The Park when the Cavaliers play, but she won’t be on the mound.

“It’ll be a little odd not to have the 6-foot-2 redhead out there,” Schmidt said.

A UVa alumna, Schmidt marvels at Mitchell’s growth “from that first year to now. She’s just blossomed in all areas, off the field, on the field, leadership, finding her niche in the engineering world.

“When you’re talking about being an engineer and then the pitcher that she is, to do it as well as she does is pretty impressive. It certainly hasn’t been easy for her, but she toughed it out.”

In high school, Mitchell also competed in volleyball and swimming, and she avidly follows UVa’s other teams.

“She knows everything about every sport here,” Schmidt said. “But Mel’s branched herself out into more than just athletics in the University community. Which I think has helped in the maturity process and the balance process, because if you’re just engineering and just softball, it’s kind of a small world.”

Mitchell said: “I really like to immerse myself in on-Grounds life. I like to meet a lot of non-student-athletes to kind of get their perspective on things, but I also love the athletes here. It’s a great community, and I wouldn’t trade that experience.”

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