July 18, 2013

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — After graduating from high school, Blake Miller served in the U.S. Army for three years. He was stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C., with the 82nd Airborne Division, an experience that helped shape him as a man and as a coach.

“It got my head straight and made me realize there are just certain things you do,” Miller recalled. “That’s what the Army teaches you: It’s going to be hard and you gotta do it. No matter what, you get it done.”

Miller, 40, faces a significant challenge in his latest professional endeavor. He took over last month as UVa’s head softball coach, replacing Eileen Schmidt, who resigned after compiling a 145-168 record in six seasons at her alma mater.

The Cavaliers finished 21-28 overall (and 4-17 in ACC play) last season. Only once has UVa advanced to the NCAA softball tournament: in 2010. But Miller is undaunted.

“We’re going to win games,” he said. “My job is to go win games, and I know [UVa’s administration is] going to support me.”

Miller also has been head coach at Division II Texas A&M-Kingsville and Darton, a junior college in Georgia, and he has grown accustomed to winning. He’s attacking his rebuilding project at UVa with his customary aggressiveness.

He came to UVa after three seasons as Mike White’s lead assistant at Oregon. During Miller’s time in Eugene, the Ducks went 137-45, with three trips to NCAA tournament super regionals and one appearance in the Women’s College World Series.

White, a pitcher, and Miller, an infielder/utility man, played together on USA Softball’s national fast-pitch team. And so when a spot opened on the Oregon staff after the 2010 season, White thought of Miller, then head coach at Texas A&M-Kingsville.

“I knew how much of a competitor he was and how much he believed in the intrinsics of the game, the intangibles, the little things that make a big difference,” White said in a recent phone interview. “And I thought we could bring some of that from the male side of the game over to the female side and help us to win.

“I know he’s a big competitor. He has the same kind of drive to win that I do, and he plays the game hard. So I thought his passion and his ability to not only tell the players what to do, but to show them, because he still played the game, would be a big asset to us.”

White primarily worked with the Ducks’ pitchers; Miller, with their batters. But their offensive philosophies are similar.

“The best defense is offense,” White said. “If you score one run, they have to score two. We share that kind of passion. Obviously I deal more with pitchers, and that’s my job, but I want us to be aggressive. Any time there’s an opening on the bases, any kind of opportunity to run a score, we’re going to try and take it. And I think that showed [in 2013]. So I’m sure he’s going to bring that kind of style of play to Virginia.”

Among Pac-12 teams last season, Oregon ranked first in batting average and stolen bases; second in slugging percentage, runs scored, hits and second in RBI; and third in home runs.

UVa, by contrast, ranked last in the ACC in batting average, slugging percentage, runs scored, hits and RBI, and was sixth (out of eight teams) in stolen bases.

“You gotta hit,” Miller said, and he expects the Wahoos to do so, starting in 2014.

The ‘Hoos must replace the most accomplished pitcher in program history, Melanie Mitchell, but Miller expects his wife, Renee Hietbrink, to accelerate the development of the team’s probable No. 1 starter for 2014 — sophomore Aimee Chapdelaine.

Hietbrink, a volunteer assistant, will work with the Cavaliers’ pitchers. Miller’s full-time assistants will be Joe Morabito and Heidi Freitager, the lone holdover from Schmidt’s staff.

Before coming to Charlottesville, Miller said, he had not met Freitager, a UVa assistant since August 2008. She immediately impressed him and has eased his transition at the University.

“I really pride myself on one thing, and it’s my gut,” Miller said. “Through our conversations, I truly believe she’s a character person. With all the interactions here, there’s no way I could have done half the things that I feel comfortable with right now if she hadn’t been there taking care of things.”

Miller said the character of his staff will help build character in his players. “When you’re loyal to them, they’re going to be loyal back, and that’s where they start developing the identity of saying, `There’s no way we’re going to lose.’ ”

It will take time for the Cavaliers to build a powerful pitching staff, Miller said, “but if we can hold [opponents] to five, six runs, you know what? We’re going to outscore them. It’s a risky way to do it, but when you have to build some pitching, that’s the way you do it.”

In 2006, when Darton advanced to the NJCAA Division I World Series, “we outscored our opponents by, I think it was 230 runs,” Miller said. We had no pitching that year, and we just went out and crushed the ball.

“Each level’s different, but each level’s athletes are different too. I’m looking forward to seeing what this team can do. We have a lot of work to do, and I know we’re going to swing it. I couldn’t care less if you strike out. Our strikeouts might not go down — they probably won’t — but I guarantee we’ll have more doubles and home runs.

“So I’m excited. I think Aimee will be great. I saw her a little bit in [UVa’s 13-0 loss to Oregon on Feb. 22 in a California tournament]. I think she has a lot of talent that’s just locked up inside of her. I know the result wasn’t that good [in California], but we had a good team.”

Morabito had a successful run as head softball coach at North Florida Community College, whose rivals included Darton. He spent the past two seasons as head baseball coach at Orange County High School, not far from Charlottesville.

When Schmidt stepped down in May, Morabito called Miller in Oregon to let him know the UVa job was open.

Miller had long wanted to work with Morabito, but for various reasons it did not work out until this summer. When Morabito was in the Navy, he was stationed in Kingsville, Texas, and was planning to join Miller’s staff there.

“And then all of the sudden he’s deployed over into Iraq,” Miller recalled. “Then he comes back and gets out of the Navy, and it was right when I got hired on at Oregon. So Joe ends up moving [to Virginia], and we go our separate ways again. I’m in Oregon. Next thing you know, I get hired here and he lives 30 minutes up the road. I’m just like, `You know what? You’re coming to coach with me now.’ ”

Miller played baseball at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, from which he earned a bachelor’s degree in 2000. He has a master’s from Mesa State, where he worked as an assistant coach while taking classes. He’s also been an assistant at East Tennessee and Missouri Western State.

After five seasons as a head coach — two at Darton, then three at Texas A&M-Kingsville — Miller enjoyed his perspective as an assistant at Oregon, which competes at the highest level of Division I softball.

“That’s probably one of the best things I did, to go back and be an assistant,” Miller said. “It’s tough, because you’re used to your voice being the final say, but also it was very nice.”

He was reminded, Miller said, that head coaches must listen to their assistants. That won’t be a problem for him at UVa, he said with a smile.

“With my wife on staff, I have to listen to my assistants,” he said, “because if I don’t, I’ll go home and hear about it all night.”

Only two schools from east of the Mississippi River — Alabama in 2012 and Michigan in 2005 — have won NCAA titles in softball, though several have finished second at the Women’s College World Series.

Many of the nation’s top high school players live in California, Miller said, and they often choose to stay close to home. That makes his job more difficult, but he doesn’t consider it an insurmountable obstacle.

“There’s some really good Virginia players,” Miller said. “It’s a smaller pool, but there are really good players here, and then of course in Florida. And I have really good connections in Texas.”

UVa’s academic reputation should make his job easier.

“We just have to market ourselves for what we do,” Miller said. “And the first thing is, we have to market the academic side. And then we have to create that identity, define who we are. Once we can define who we are in the field, it’ll sell. Our hotbed’s everywhere, based on our academic prowess.

“Out on the recruiting trail, people are really excited about Virginia softball. All those people are excited to see Heidi still here, too.”

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