April 20, 2016
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In a season in which it finished last in the ACC, the University of Virginia softball team won one conference series in 2015.
That was one more than UVA won in 2014, and there has been additional progress this season. The Cavaliers have captured two of their past three ACC series to move into eighth place in the 11-team league.
Virginia’s most recent series victory came last weekend against North Carolina.
When the teams met last March in Chapel Hill, N.C., the Tar Heels swept the three-game series, outscoring the Wahoos 49-14. In Game 2, which was stopped after five innings, Virginia gave up seven home runs and lost 24-3.
Fast forward to last weekend at The Park, where the latest UVA-UNC encounters went much differently. Virginia won the opener 7-1 and then, after dropping the second game 10-8, rebounded to beat North Carolina 3-2 in the finale Sunday.
The series victory was UVA’s first over Carolina in six years. The winning pitcher in Games 1 and 3 was freshman right-hander Erika Osherow, who’s from Dorien, Conn., about 45 miles northeast of New York City.
The exuberant Osherow, who’s often laughing when she’s not smiling, knew little about the Virginia-UNC rivalry before matriculating last summer. She’s learned a lot since then.
“It was awesome,” Osherow said of the series-clinching win, “and it was on Senior Day, too. I remember pitching the last pitch and thinking, `This pitch is for my seniors.’ Everybody was so energized and pumped after the game.”
Virginia’s senior class consists of two players: Aimee Chapdelaine, who starts in left field, and Taylor Sarcone, who is used primarily as a pinch-runner. Freshmen and sophomores make up more than half of the Cavaliers’ roster, and the underclassmen are optimistic about the program’s long-term prospects, as is head coach Blake Miller.
“We feel we can build off this,” Osherow said.
In 2014, the Cavaliers’ first season under Miller, they finished 8-43 overall and 1-25 in ACC play. Last season brought improvement — the `Hoos were 16-40 overall and 4-20 in the ACC — and their rise has continued this year.
With 10 regular-season games left, the Cavaliers are 15-28 overall and 5-10 in conference play. Their next ACC series starts Saturday against Georgia Tech (17-27, 4-10). First, however, comes a non-conference doubleheader Wednesday against Liberty (23-22) at The Park, where admission is free. The first game will start at 4 p.m.
Miller said the series win over UNC was an important step for his players. After seeing the Heels dominate the series in recent years, he said, Virginia pushed back last weekend.
“They finally said, `You know what? We’re going to step up and we’re going to go beat this team, no matter what’s happened in the past,’ ” Miller said. “They put themselves on the line and really stepped up and got something done. It’s exciting.”
In the 5-foot-8 Osherow, the Cavaliers have the No. 1 pitcher they lacked in 2014 and ’15. Her record (12-17) isn’t overwhelming, but she has a 3.01 earned-run average, and opponents are hitting .288 against her. In 174.2 innings, she’s pitched 19 complete games.
In her two appearances against UNC last weekend — both complete games — Osherow allowed only two earned runs. As impressive as Osherow’s work in the circle, Miller said, is her character.
“She’s just an unbelievable kid,” he said. “As a person and as a player, she’s really somebody that you’re able to consistently trust.
“You know she’s going to come out to practice every day, and she’s going to go as hard as she can. And then you know when she gets on the field, she’s going to compete. And so really it’s a base of consistency, and you know she’s going to be there day in and day out.”
Miller prefers not to use Osherow in both games of a doubleheader — “Gotta keep her healthy,” he said — but she’s available if necessary.
“She’s ready to go compete,” Miller said, “and so if we need her to go, she’s going to look at me and say, `Let’s go, Coach.’ I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
Associate head coach Heidi Freitager-Kirkaldy led UVA’s pursuit of Osherow, who played travel ball for the Connecticut Seahawks.
“Heidi had seen her in some camps, and she said it was someone I needed to go see,” said Miller, who came to UVA after three years as the lead assistant at Pac-12 power Oregon.
Miller was evaluating prospects at a national tournament in California when Freitager-Kirkaldy called him. “So I booked a flight the night before and flew straight from California to Connecticut, just to go see her,” Miller said.
He liked what he saw, and Osherow committed to UVA before her junior year at Darien High School. Virginia appealed to her in part, she said, because it was “not too North, not too South.”
Virginia has advanced to the NCAA softball tournament only once — in 2010 — and Osherow could have chosen a school with a richer tradition. But she was looking for a college “with both academics and softball, with one not outweighing the other,” Osherow said.
“So, yeah, it’d be awesome to go into a program that’s really high already, but [the Cavaliers’ struggles] didn’t intimidate me or turn me away.”
A kinesiology major, Osherow rooms with Rachel Corry, a freshman on the UVA women’s golf team. Corry is from Ridgefield, Conn., and in middle school she and Osherow were teammates on a basketball travel team.
A concussion prematurely ended Osherow’s hoops career, but she stayed active. In addition to starring for Darien’s softball team, she also played field hockey and ran cross country in high school.
“I loved sports, and I didn’t want to specialize early,” Osherow recalled. “A lot of people in high school were specialized, especially in lacrosse. But I thought it was just cool keeping my options open, and you learn things about each sport by transitioning to a different sport.”
The UVA coaching staff originally planned to redshirt Osherow this season, and that would have been fine with her.
“I was like, `All right, this is going to be great: a year to develop, a year to attack it in the weight room and at practice,’ ” Osherow said.
Osherow impressed during fall practice, however, and the Cavaliers’ coaches decided to play her immediately. She has embraced the opportunity.
“Coming in and actually being able to play, it’s awesome,” Osherow said, smiling. “I wish I had enough words to describe it.”
She remembers watching college softball games on TV back in Connecticut “and being like, `That’s so cool. I want to be that girl,’ ” Osherow said. “And now, having younger girls come to our games [at Virginia], I am that girl.”