Feb. 4, 2015

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — When the softball teams from Big East rivals Providence and St. John’s met in a three-game series last April, McKall Miller and Kaitlin Fitzgerald were in opposite dugouts.

Little did Miller and Fitzgerald, then freshmen, know that a few months later they would become teammates at the University of Virginia. They never formally met before transferring to UVa last summer, and neither recalls much about that series at Providence, where Fitzgerald went 3 for 8 and Miller was 1 for 5 with a three-run home run.

“It was cold,” Miller said. “I remember that. It was really cold.”

“I know we won two games,” Fitzgerald said.

“That was a recurring theme for us,” Miller said of the Friars’ losses.

St. John’s finished 28-23 in 2014, but Providence went 6-29. Virginia fared little better than the Friars last year. The Cavaliers posted the worst records in program history: 8-43 overall and 1-25 in ACC play.

UVa’s second season under head coach Blake Miller should yield more victories, in part because of the additions of Fitzgerald and McKall Miller (no relation), who have been basking in the relative warmth of Charlottesville this semester.

“This is a nice little break,” McKall Miller said with a laugh. “It’s pretty brutal [in Rhode Island].”

The Wahoos open the season Thursday in Arizona, at the Kajikawa Classic in Phoenix. Virginia takes on BYU at 6:30 p.m. ET and Stanford at 9 p.m. In a lineup that’s expected to include five freshmen, including pitcher Andie Formby, McKall Miller will start at second base and Fitzgerald at third against BYU. (Andie’s twin, Alex Formby, is likely to start in the circle against Stanford.)

“First things first, for a really young team, they bring experience,” Blake Miller said of the transfers. “The next big thing is, they’re both hitters. And they both are really key aspects of our defense.”

Fitzgerald, whose father played football at Mississippi State, is from Placentia, Calif. At St. John’s, where she started at third base, Fitzgerald batted cleanup. She hit .355 with three home runs and 28 RBI and was named to the All-Big East first team.

Miller, whose father played in the Philadelphia Phillies’ minor-league system, graduated from Broad Run High School in Ashburn. She started in left field for Providence last year and led the team in home runs (seven), RBI (16), doubles (five) and slugging percentage (.500). She hit .240.

She liked Providence, McKall Miller said, but decided it “just wasn’t quite the right fit for me,” and so she asked for a release from her scholarship last spring.

Her hitting coach in Northern Virginia, Eileen Hannigan, is close friends with UVa assistant Heidi Freitager-Kirkaldy. The Cavaliers contacted Miller, and from there things progressed quickly.

“Since it was so close [to home], I just set up an unofficial visit, came down and fell in love,” said Miller, an environmental sciences major who played in the Vienna Stars travel program with two of her new teammates at UVa, sophomore Kinza Baad and freshman Allison Davis.

Fitzgerald said she knew life at an urban school such as St. John’s “was going to be hectic, and I wanted to do that, because it was different from where I live [in California]. I love New York, and I wanted to try it.”

By the end of her freshman year, though, “I realized it really wasn’t the place for me,” Fitzgerald said. “I really wasn’t feeling like I was at home. I really did not like where I was at.”

She knew nothing about UVa at the time, but when Fitzgerald learned Blake Miller had been an assistant coach at Oregon, a perennial power, she was intrigued. The interest was mutual.

“I looked at other schools,” Fitzgerald said, “but [Blake Miller] called me the minute he got my release. That day. I moved out of my dorm, went to dinner with my mom, and like 30 minutes after I moved out of my dorm, he called me.”

Fitzgerald, who’s considering a major in foreign affairs, researched more than the softball programs of the schools that contacted her about transferring.

“I wanted to know what kind of degrees they offer,” she said. “Academics was huge for me, because softball, it’s not a career. So I looked up [UVa] and I was like, `Whoa!’ I didn’t realize how good an academic school Virginia was. I think that really influenced me a lot. It is a huge part.”

On the field, both players believe, better days for coming for the Cavaliers.

“I think we have the potential to be very good,” McKall Miller said. “Yes, we are young, but the people that are young, they don’t act it. So it’s a very mature feel on the team, despite the majority of us being underclassmen.”

Fitzgerald, who played in a winning program at St. John’s, said the ‘Hoos “are just as good, if not better, and we mesh a lot better as a team.”

The 2014 season was a struggle at times for players and coaches alike at UVa, and they acknowledged as much last year. Now, though, the “atmosphere’s changed,” Blake Miller said, “because everyone can see how fast we’re growing.”

McKall Miller said: “I think the overall mindset of the team is that we’re not looking back anymore. So we don’t really talk about last year, because we don’t need to focus on it. All we have ahead of us are the games that are coming up, and that’s what we’re worried about, and that’s what we’re focused on.”

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