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May 8, 2017

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By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE — On a Friday night in mid-April, the University of Virginia softball team fell 10-5 to Georgia Tech at The Park, its seventh loss in nine games and an all-too-familiar outcome for a rebuilding program.

The defeat dropped the Cavaliers to 14-29 overall and 3-13 in ACC play, and they seemed to have little reason for optimism as the regular season entered its final stretch. But UVA’s coaching staff continued to voice the same message: Stay the course.

“It’s easy to implode, it’s easy to point fingers, it’s easy to start to internally kind of tear each other apart because we’re not getting the results,” Joanna Hardin, the Wahoos’ first-year head coach, told her players. “But stay with us, stay with us.”

About 17 hours after losing to the Yellow Jackets, Virginia took the field again. This time the `Hoos left The Park victorious, and the next day they rallied to defeat Georgia Tech 4-2, securing their first series win of the season.

“That was the turning point, wasn’t it?” senior Katie Park said.

Indeed, since losing that series opener to Georgia Tech, the Cavaliers (22-31 overall, 9-15 conference) have won eight of 10 games, and they qualified for the ACC tournament for the first time since 2013. The nine ACC wins are the most for UVA since 2010.

“The rewarding part about the last three weeks of our season is really our kids,” Hardin said. “They stayed the course. They kept getting after it. And we had our moments. Every team has their moments and their little blow-ups and little drama or whatever. I think that’s normal, but we’ve recovered from that, and we kept our eye on the big picture, so I think that’s a testament to our kids really trusting [the staff] and trusting themselves.”

The No. 8 seed in the single-elimination ACC tourney, Virginia meets top-seeded Florida State (48-6-1, 24-0) at 11 a.m. Thursday in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The game will be televised on Regional Sports Networks.

The Seminoles swept their three-game series with UVA in late March, winning by a combined score of 31-1 at The Park. Even so, the Cavaliers are undaunted.

“We have nothing to lose,” Hardin said. “We’re going to go at it, play hard and play our game.”

If the teams met 10 times, the `Noles might win nine games, Park acknowledged, “but all we need is that one time.”

Park, who’s from Phoenix, signed a letter of intent with Virginia in November 2012. Eileen Schmidt was the Cavaliers’ head coach then, but Blake Miller had replaced her by the time Park arrived in Charlottesville in the summer of 2013.

After three seasons in which he compiled an overall record of 42-116, Miller resigned last spring, and Hardin was hired in June. She’d spent the two previous two seasons as head coach at McNeese State, where her record was 79-34, with one NCAA tournament appearance.

“To start I was very cautiously optimistic,” Park said. “I had heard fantastic things about Coach Jo and her program at McNeese State. She was very successful.”

After meeting Hardin, Park said, “I knew exactly what she was thinking about, knew what she wanted to accomplish, and then I knew that she wanted to push us to be the best people, both on and off the field, which I think plays particularly well into Uncompromised Excellence here at the University. So I think it’s been a great fit for everyone involved.”

Park, who plays several positions, including catcher, is part of a six-player senior class that bought into Hardin’s philosophy from the start. Park’s classmates are Kaitlin Fitzgerald, McKall Miller, Madison Labshere, Kinza Baad and Iyana Hughes.

“Coach Jo spoke to us throughout the fall about our role in building something bigger than ourselves here, which I think really resonated with [the seniors], myself included,” Park said. “That’s a really good perspective to take. Even though this is your last year, we still have something to establish and we can really have a lasting impact on the younger people [in the program]. It was about more than ourselves. It was about the program and the younger girls and everyone else who gets a chance to play for Coach Jo.”

When the Cavaliers were struggling, it would have been easy for the players to “give in and say, `Well, we didn’t do it this year. Too bad. We’ve only got a couple weeks left. Let’s just check the box and be a hollow shell that just shows up to the field,’ ” Hardin said.

That didn’t happen. “They stayed invested, and that’s really hard,” Hardin said. “It’s hard when you don’t get the outcomes you want, because you’ve worked and there’s this sense of, `I deserve this.’ There’s this sense of injustice to it, but they really stayed with us the whole time, which is huge.”

Another key has been the improvement of sophomore Erika Osherow, who has established herself as Virginia’s No. 1 pitcher. She’s won six of her past seven decisions.

Early in the season, Hardin said, Osherow was putting undue pressure on herself and “trying to throw outside of herself and do a little too much. I think the key to her success at the end is she just stayed the course. She kept working. She kept throwing in the bullpen. She kept figuring it out. She didn’t get so discouraged that she just gave up. Her grit has really been great.

“She’s gained so much experience and has learned a lot about herself and a lot about pitching. We’re getting to the point now where she’s on the field and she’s seeing things and she’s thinking things and she’s actually really controlling the circle, whereas before she wasn’t doing that. She’s really come a long way emotionally, mentally and as a pitcher.”

Junior slugger Danni Ingraham leads Virginia with 10 home runs and 34 RBI. Park is second in both categories and has a team-high 12 doubles. Her batting average of .383 is by far the best on the team.

“She’s really worked,” Hardin said of Park, who hit .314 last season. “She’s just really, really put the time and the effort in. Katie came up to [assistant coach] Kaleigh Rafter, probably in mid-March or late March, and said, `How do I get better?’

“This is a senior, hitting .350 or .340 at the time, coming to your coaching staff and saying, `What can I do to be a better hitter?’ And I think that is the epitome of Katie. Honestly, most seniors hitting .340, they’re not asking to get better. They’re happy with their stats, but she’s been hungry to be consistent and to be a great hitter and leader. I’m really proud and so happy for her.”

Park said: “I’m just very thankful for the opportunity to play for Coach Jo and the entire staff, really. They’ve been awesome.”

This is a program that has reached the NCAA tournament only once — in 2010 — and Hardin knows much work remains for the Cavaliers. Still, she’s proud of her team’s progress.

“You always want to send your seniors out right, so I think for their sake it’s been very, very exciting,” Hardin said. “I think, too, it sets the standard. Yeah, we made the tournament. We scratched into the tournament, which is great, but we’re not satisfied.

“This is the expectation now. The expectation isn’t to scratch our way in. The expectation is to compete. Now we’re competing for seeding, and now we’re competing for an at-large [invitation to the NCAA tourney], and now we’re competing to win the ACC tournament.

“It’s a good first step, but we are nowhere near where we want to go.”

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