June 20, 2014

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Blake Miller emerged undaunted from a trying first season as a Division I head softball coach, still confident in his ability to build a powerful program at the University of Virginia.

And that was before he knew McKall Miller and Kaitlin Fitzgerald were transferring to UVa. He’s even more optimistic now about the Cavaliers’ prospects for 2015 and beyond.

Miller and Fitzgerald played this season at Providence and St. John’s, respectively. Each has three years of eligibility left, beginning next season, when Virginia is likely to use Miller at shortstop and Fitzgerald at third base.

“This speeds up our rebuilding process, because it really secures the left side of our infield,” Blake Miller said. “We struggled there this year, and to bring in two people that actually already have college experience playing-wise is just huge.”

McKall Miller, a graduate of Broad Run High in Northern Virginia, started all 35 games for the Friars this spring and led the team in home runs (seven), RBI (16), doubles (five) and slugging percentage (.500). At UVa, only Marcy Bowdren (seven) hit as many homers this season, and she was a senior.

Fitzgerald, who’s from Placentia, Calif., started all 51 games for the Red Storm. She hit .355 with three homers, 11 doubles and 28 RBI and was named to the All-Big East first team.

“They’re really good players,” Blake Miller said. “Both of them are really strong, have a lot of power at the plate. We just feel really fortunate to be able to pick up two young women of this caliber who can help us so much defensively and at the plate.”

The Wahoos can use the help. Virginia finished the season with the worst records — 8-43 overall and 1-25 in ACC play — in the history of a program that dates to 1980.

“I have never been on a team [at any level] with that kind of record,” said left-fielder Heidi Velk, a rising senior. “It was kind of a shock to us.”

Miller, a former Oregon assistant who also has been a head coach at the Division II and junior-college levels, expected struggles in his first season at UVa. Still, he acknowledged, “It was tough. Don’t get me wrong.”

Attrition left the `Hoos with 12 players this season, only three of whom were seniors. Five were freshmen, including Lindsay Mayer, who recently left the program. Because of the players’ academic obligations, Miller rarely had a full team at practice.

“I only practiced probably like twice a week with the team in the spring because of my class schedule,” said Velk, who’s enrolled in the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy.

After opening the season Feb. 7 with a 3-1 loss to Eastern Michigan in a tournament at USC Upstate, Virginia won later that day, whipping North Carolina Central 8-1. But several extended losing streaks followed in a season marked by one-sided defeats.

“We just didn’t have the pitching to go far enough to where we needed to be,” Miller said. “We walked too many batters. That was a bigger problem than I thought it was going to be, the pitching. And you can’t hide pitching in fast-pitch.”

Velk said: “Pitching’s the name of the game, for sure. [Miller] would tell us before every game, `All right, we gotta score 11 to win.’ We all would kind of laugh, but that was really the case. We needed to score 11. And the one time we played Florida State and we beat them, we scored 11.”

UVa’s primary pitcher was Aimee Chapdelaine, who went 8-36 with a 6.90 earned-run average. “Aimee battled, and she gave us everything she had,” Miller said.

Chapdelaine, a rising junior, can compete for the starting job again next season, but the `Hoos will have several other options in the circle.

Of UVa’s six incoming freshmen, three are pitchers: twins Alex and Andie Formby, from Orange, Calif., and Allison Davis, a graduate of Oakton High in Northern Virginia who’s also a middle infielder. Rounding out the class are catcher Brittany McNulla, first baseman Danni Ingraham and infielder Lauren Heintzelman.

“I’m excited to see what’s brought in and how quickly we learn,” Velk said. “You never know what you’re going to look like, especially during the fall season, but I think I’m ready for a fresh start and new faces.

“It can only go up from here, that’s my feeling about it.”

The eight newcomers figure to improve not only UVa’s talent level, but its depth. “There’s a little more competition for each position,” Miller said.

With only 12 players on the roster this spring, there was little competition, and that contributed to the team’s struggles. Still, Miller said, the Cavaliers’ record obscured the progress many players made — and the perseverance they showed — over the course of the season.

“Our first-years were really getting better, and they could see themselves getting better,” said Miller, who singled out center-fielder Iyana Hughes and catcher Katie Park.

“Team-wise, we couldn’t put up the Ws, but you could see little growths.”

Velk said: “I think we all kind of hit a wall at one point or another, personally and as a team. And then we had to kind of get over it and say, `This is how it’s going to be. We can make it however we want to.’ I know I had like a week period where I was just like, `This is ridiculous. I can’t believe we’re losing like this.’ And then finally I was like, `This is a chance for me to get better as a player. We may not be winning all these games, but I can work on what I need to work on and go into next year with that.’ ”

The Cavaliers’ lone conference win could not have been much more improbable. Against a Florida State team that would advance to the College World Series and finish with 55 victories, UVa rallied from six runs down and won 11-9 on a walk-off home run by Bowdren in the bottom of the seventh.

“I was happy for [the players],” Miller said. “They stepped up and decided to go swing the bat that day and be aggressive. I would say you’ll see a lot more of that in the future.”

Four teams from the ACC made the NCAA tournament this season: FSU, Notre Dame, NC State and Virginia Tech. UVa may not contend for an berth in the NCAAs in 2015, but Miller believes his team will be much more competitive.

“I really think we’ll make a big jump next year,” he said. “I don’t want to put numbers on it, that’s not the smart thing to do, but we’ll make a big jump. Adding three strong pitchers in the circle, that changes everything right there. That changes the hitters, that changes the defense. It takes a lot of pressure off and lets them go out and have fun, instead of thinking, `I better catch every ball. If not, I’m in trouble.’ ”

Miller said the coaching staff stayed positive throughout the season, even as the losses mounted.

“If we get stuck in the misery, then the girls are going to be miserable,” he said. “We have no choice. We’re going to have fun, and they’re going to come along with us.”

His biggest concern during the season, Miller said, was that Virginia’s on-field woes would cause some of its Class of 2015 commitments to look at other schools.

“But they just got more and more excited about the possibility [of playing at UVa],” he said. “They know they’re going to come in and make an impact. Everyone just believes in what we’re doing.”

Miller called the class that will enroll at Virginia next summer “unbelievable” and added that recruiting in the Class of ’16 is going well, too.

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