By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Growing up in Arizona, Katie Park practiced martial arts for a decade, and she holds black belts in wado-ryu and kobujutsu.
The skills she mastered may not directly transfer to the diamond, but the lessons Park learned from her sensei still serve her well as a University of Virginia softball player.
Martial arts “taught me so much with self-discipline and even just body awareness,” Park said. “Ten years teaches you a lot.”
A 5-10 junior from Scottsdale, Ariz., outside Phoenix, Park has split time between second base and catcher this season. She leads the Cavaliers with five home runs and 21 RBI, and her .447 batting average is by far the highest on the team.
“The numbers are a big tribute to the rest of the team, honestly,” Park said. “I wouldn’t have my numbers if everyone else wasn’t stepping up. But I think I’m definitely more relaxed and comfortable at the plate and not pressing as much.”
She’s also healthier. An ankle injury sidelined Park for 14 games in 2015, when she hit .200, with five homers and 16 RBI. But head coach Blake Miller never doubted Park’s potential at the plate.
“I always thought she was this kind of hitter,” said Miller, who’s in his third year at Virginia. “It’s just discipline. She’s finally starting to become a lot more disciplined at the plate and in defining her at-bats. And she’s getting in better shape. That’s probably the biggest thing of all. She’s doing those extra things to actually make herself game-ready instead of letting herself wear down.”
Park said: “I’ve really made a conscious effort to eat better and condition more.”
A graduate of Xavier College Prep in Phoenix, Park signed her letter of intent with UVA in November 2012, Eileen Schmidt was the Cavaliers’ head coach then. By the time Park enrolled at the University in the summer of 2013, however, Miller, a former Oregon assistant, had taken over the program.
When she learned of the coaching change, Park recalled, “I was really nervous at first. I didn’t really know what to expect. But it was a really good opportunity at the same time, knowing that he was from the staff at Oregon, so obviously he knew his stuff.”
For Park, UVA’s academic reputation was the major selling point. She fell for the beauty of the Grounds as well.
“I’d never been to the East Coast before,” she said. “I was born and raised in Arizona — same house. So UVA was gorgeous, and definitely something different.”
As a freshman in 2014, she started all 51 games at catcher and hit .242, with two home runs and 16 RBI. For the Wahoos, it was a long, frustrating season. They posted the worst records in program history: 8-43 overall and 1-25 in ACC play.
“It definitely was a learning experience,” Park, a psychology major, said of her first college season. “It was a great character-builder.”
She smiled. “It’s probably terrible to say that, but it is what it is, and I think we’ve been moving forward.”
Virginia showed modest improvement in 2015, finishing 16-40 overall and 4-20 in the ACC. This season, with a roster that includes only two seniors, the `Hoos are 6-9 heading into a tournament at UNC Wilmington this weekend.
“We’re ready to take a huge step,” Miller said. “[The core of] this team’s here for two years. And the thing is, we have two really good [recruits] that will come in next year and keep pushing the people that are here.”
The difference this season, Park said, is that “more people are buying into it. Obviously we have a lot of talent, but I think a lot of people are just going all in and laying it out for each other.”
Virginia’s No. 1 pitcher, Erika Osherow, is a freshman, as is the team’s top shortstop, Allie Arneson, whom Miller called “our sparkplug.” Arneson is hitting .333.
“The first game I put her in, she gets a single,” Miller said. “She takes second base on a ball in the dirt and scores on the next hit. I thought, `All right, this kid’s already got us back in this game, and she’s only had one at-bat.’ ”
Arneson is “making everybody else better on our infield,” Miller said. “And then Katie’s leading. She’s doing well at the plate, and she’s starting to lead better. All those things are starting to take the pressure off of our freshman pitchers, so they can actually go do what they want to do.”
In addition to Osherow, Virginia’s pitching staff includes freshmen Lexi Mettler and Lacy Smith, as well as sophomore Allison Davis.
“Great talent. Great attitudes,” Park said of the pitchers. “They all have a very good competitive nature. They’re going to go out there and try and get it done every single time. I think they have the talent to do it now, and they’re only going to get more experience as time goes on.”
Park began this season at second base, which allowed freshman Olivia Gott to get some work at catcher. But Park moved back to catcher last weekend and is likely to play there against Virginia’s toughest opponents, Miller said.
The moves don’t faze Park, who played catcher and center field in high school and club softball.
This is the first time in her career she’s played second base, Park said, but “I don’t really have too big of a problem going from a different position back to catching and then back. I’m not uncomfortable with it. I’m just happy to be on the field helping out in any way I can.”
The Cavaliers opened the 2015 season at the Kajikawa Classic in Phoenix, but her ankle injury kept Park on the bench. Virginia returned to Phoenix last month, and this time Park played in front of family, friends and former teammates and coaches.
“That was awesome,” Park said.
When she came to the East Coast to attend college, Park wasn’t sure what to expect, and she didn’t know how she’d fit in with Virginia’s new coaching staff. Her concerns have long since vanished.
“It’s been a great experience,” Park said. “I’ve loved every second of it. I really wouldn’t change it at all.”
UVA’s home opener is scheduled for March 12 against ACC rival Notre Dame at The Park.