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Sept. 7, 2016

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — Madison Labshere carries a book with her almost everywhere she goes, a slim paperback titled Chop Wood Carry Water: How to Fall in Love with the Process of Becoming Great. It’s assigned reading — not for students in Labshere’s master’s program in the Curry School of Education, but for members of the University of Virginia softball team.

The book, by Joshua Medcalf, teaches “life lessons and daily principles that will obviously apply to softball, but also life after softball,” said UVA’s new head coach, Joanna Hardin.

The Cavaliers meet regularly to discuss the book, said Labshere, a second baseman from El Cajon, Calif., and Hardin is passionate about its message.

“Coach Jo always says if we catch someone cheating themselves: `Don’t use cheap material. Use the real stuff when you’re building your house,’ ” Labshere said.

Hardin, who compiled a 79-34 record in two seasons as McNeese State’s head coach, came to UVA to build a winning program, and she’s been busy laying the foundation. The Wahoos have reached the NCAA tournament only once — in 2010 — and they’ve had four straight losing seasons.

“There is a definite hunger to win,” said Labshere, one of six seniors on the roster. “I think we’re just really excited for the opportunity to play under her. I think life throws you things for a reason, so I think we were thrown her for a reason, and that is to turn the program around.”

When Hardin took over at UVA in early June, with the team’s returning players scattered around the country, the former Liberty University assistant coach had a lengthy to-do list, but she knew she needed to prioritize.

“The most important thing was meeting the kids, getting to know them a little bit,” Hardin said. “The players were the No. 1 priority for the summer. The second was the staff. The third was recruiting, and after that, if you get to it, you get to it.”

Hardin also spent time scouting young prospects and evaluating the high school players in the Class of 2017 who had committed to UVA when her predecessor, Blake Miller, was in charge of the program.

“So I was looking at the committed kids and determining (A) if they were a good fit for the University — and all of them were great — and then (B) how they project defensively and offensively,” Hardin said. “How do they fit our picture? And if they fit differently, how do we fill in those gaps a little bit? So that’s kind of been the process of the summer. It’s been a whirlwind.

“Even getting familiar with Grounds and learning the system of how Virginia works, that just wasn’t the No. 1 priority over the summer, especially when I was working alone, not having a staff to help with the recruiting. I think in July I slept at my house maybe seven nights. So it was really crazy.”

Reinforcements have arrived. Early last month, Hardin hired Kaleigh Rafter as an assistant coach. About three weeks later, Hardin added another assistant, Katie Repole, to the staff.

A 2005 graduate of Biola University in California — she later earned a master’s from Liberty — Hardin is one of the youngest head coaches in Division I softball. Her assistants are even younger. Repole’s playing career at Louisiana-Lafayette ended last season. Rafter’s final college season (at Florida State) was in 2009, and she still plays for the Canadian national team.

“That they can do what they’re asking their kids to do brings a lot of credibility, I think,” Hardin said.

Rafter is the Wahoos’ offensive coordinator and works with the catchers and infielders. Repole coaches the outfielders, assists with the offense and serves as recruiting coordinator.

“I went with trust and loyalty first,” said Hardin, who coaches Virginia’s pitchers. “I know Katie and Kaleigh well enough to know that they’re high-character people. Very, very high character. Who they are when they’re alone is who they are when they’re with me, and that’s huge.

“I’ve always seen them both work extremely hard. They stand out, because of how they carry themselves and what they do.”

Hardin faces a considerable challenge at UVA. In 2014, the Cavaliers’ first season under Miller, they posted the worst records in program history: 8-43 overall and 1-25 in ACC. No significant breakthroughs followed, though the `Hoos showed slight improvement in both 2015 (16-40 overall, 4-20 conference) and 2016 (18-33, 7-14).

In Hardin’s first year at UVA, she has most of the key players from last season back, including sophomore Erika Osherow, the team’s No. 1 pitcher. The Cavaliers’ other veterans include three players who belted seven home runs apiece in 2016 — Labshere, junior Danni Ingraham and senior Katie Park (team-high .314 batting average) — as well as senior Iyana Hughes (six home runs), senior Kaitlin Fitzgerald (.296) and junior Allison Davis (.293).

Four freshmen have joined the program — Bailey Vaughn, Ashlee Davis, Meghan Bradshaw and Janelle Zellars — but the most noteworthy addition, of course, was Hardin, who guided McNeese State to the NCAA tournament last season.

“I definitely think she is going to provide a light for the program, the spark that we needed to push us,” Labshere said. “For our whole team to get to that next level, it’s just that little push, that little spark that’s going to make the difference.”

Hardin’s official debut at UVA won’t come until the calendar flips to 2017, but fall workouts have begun for the team. With their new coaches watching from the stands, the `Hoos recently played an intrasquad scrimmage at The Park.

“They’re a little bit rusty, but I think that was to be expected,” Hardin said. “I think without a doubt their desire to pursue excellence is very evident. They want to be great, and that’s what been really cool for us. They’re embracing us. They’re embracing what we’re bringing, and asking a lot of questions, asking for a lot of clarity, because they really want to be good.

“I can appreciate that. Coming in as a new staff, you never know what kind of resistance you’re going to face. We’ve had no resistance. That’s a pretty unique situation, I think.”

The program’s lack of success has been frustrating for the players, Labshere acknowledged, “but I think a lot of the time it just motivates us. Because we do put in the work. We lift four days a week at 6 a.m. We do those extra hours at the field, and I think it’s all going to [pay dividends]. But part of the book that we’re reading is about enjoying the process. So we have had the downs, but we know the ups are coming, and it’s just about taking in the journey.”

The mood around the program has improved dramatically since Hardin took over, according to Labshere.

“It’s completely night and day,” she said, “and it’s just a different approach. I think that would be the best way to put it.”

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