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Jan. 30, 2018

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — When temperatures plunged below freezing across much of the United States this month, University of Virginia softball player Danni Ingraham, born and raised in Southern California, did not complain about conditions in her college town.

“I come from a place where people think 50 degrees is cold, and they’re wearing winter coats,” Ingraham said, laughing. “So I think it’s fun here when it snows or the weather is changing. It always keeps you on your toes, which is good.”

Ingraham (pronounced ing-grum), a fourth-year biology major, grew up in Laguna Niguel, about 55 miles southeast of Los Angeles, and she knew nothing about the University when colleges began recruiting her.

“I had played in softball tournaments on the East Coast, but I had never heard of UVA,” she said. “When [the Cavaliers’ coaches] interest was piqued in me, in my sophomore year of high school, and I looked them up. I was just blown away, because I had no idea about the school.”

Ingraham also seriously considered the University of California, Harvard and UC Santa Barbara before committing to UVA as a 10th-grader. “It was just about finding out if I wanted to stay on the West Coast or come to the East Coast,” she said.

Eileen Schmidt was the Wahoos’ head coach when Ingraham committed. But Schmidt resigned in May 2013, when Ingraham was finishing up her junior year at Dana Hills High School, and Blake Miller took over at UVA.

Miller was still the coach when Ingraham arrived in the summer of 2014, but he resigned after her sophomore season. In came Joanna Hardin, who, along with assistant coaches Kaleigh Rafter and Katie Repole, guided UVA to 22 victories last year, its most since 2012.

With nine ACC wins, their most in seven years, the ‘Hoos qualified for the conference tournament for the first time since 2013.

“It’s been awesome,” Ingraham said of playing for Hardin and Co. “I was really nervous at first, because I think everybody gets nervous when your head coach [changes]… They’ve done an awesome job with everything. They’ve changed our program. Just looking at numbers, we’ve improved dramatically.”

Virginia, which finished 22-32 in 2017, opens at the Cowgirl Classic, Feb. 8-10 in Lake Charles, Louisiana, where Hardin spent the 2015 and ’16 seasons as McNeese State’s head coach.

Ingraham figures prominently in the Cavaliers’ plans. She’s heading into her fourth year as a starter and her third as the team’s No. 1 first baseman.

In 2017, Ingraham led the Cavaliers with 10 home runs and 34 RBI, and she tied for third in doubles, with nine. Equally impressive, she committed only three errors while recording a team-high 377 putouts.

“Typically, a first baseman is probably going to make the majority of your mistakes,” Hardin said. “So it’s really, really special. She’s really solid there. It’s fortunate when you have someone who can play first base and be solid [defensively] and also swing with some power.”

At 6-foot-2, Ingraham is a big target for her teammates in the field, and she puts her size to good use.

“I love being tall,” said Ingraham, who also played volleyball and basketball in high school. “It’s so nice, being at first base. I know McKall [Miller] always said last year that she could just chuck it [to first] and I would reach it.

“When your teammates make awesome plays, a lot of the times the throw’s not going to be there. I take a huge responsibility, and I want to make sure I’m doing this for my team.”

Ingraham’s bio on lists her many accomplishments in softball. It also notes her connection with Eric Karros, a former Major League Baseball star who in 1992 was the National League rookie of the year for the Dodgers.

He’s one of her uncles. Karros is her mother’s brother-in-law, and Ingraham, naturally, was a Dodgers fan as a girl.

“I had to be growing up, when he played for them,” she said, “but I think we’re more so Angels fans now, just because we live [near Anaheim].”

Ingraham enrolled at UVA as part of a six-player recruiting class. From that group, only Ingraham and outfielder Allison Davis remain in the program. The Cavaliers’ roster includes nine freshmen, one of whom, Janelle Zellars, redshirted last season.

“We’re going to be young on the infield,” Hardin said, “and that doesn’t necessarily mean all freshmen. We’ve got some players who will be playing that just don’t have a lot of experience. Danni has a lot of experience. This is her fourth spring, and she can bring that and use that by talking them through what it’s like to be on the road for so many weekends in a row, and really helping and encouraging them, but also challenging them when those lulls come.”

Preseason practice has “been very enjoyable,” Hardin said. “We’re learning a ton. I would say our freshman class has come in and brought some energy. Their youthfulness actually really has brought a lot to the team, and they’re fun.

“This is a very unified team, and I think they really enjoy each other and they believe in each other. That’s really special, and that’s really stood out. They love playing softball. They know when it’s time to get serious, but I think there’s a true joy in being on the field.”

Not everything went smoothly in Hardin’s first season in Charlottesville. After dropping a Friday night game to Georgia Tech last season at The Park, Virginia had a 14-29 overall record. The Cavaliers were 3-13 in the ACC. Instead of collapsing, though, they won eight of their final 10 regular-season games to clinch a spot in the ACC tourney.

“It was just really cool,” Ingraham said. “The game becomes more fun when you start winning. We were all meshing as people, inside and outside of the team. It was just perfect the way things were working out.”

Crucial to UVA’s turnaround last season, Hardin said, was the willingness of the team’s upperclassmen, Ingraham included, to buy into the new coaching staff’s message.

“When we came in, across the board they were so hungry to change,” Hardin said. “Now, being hungry to change and knowing how to execute that change are two different things, but I think that desire has always been there.

“Now, in Year 2, as Coach Rafter talks about, we’re adding layers. We have this foundation, and we’re just starting to really build on top of that. And I think next year we’ll finally have the roster the way we really want it, with the depth at certain positions. It just takes three to four years to really implement your philosophy, and we’re so much closer to where we want to be with this group. And it’s because these upperclassmen embraced us, and they executed what we’ve asked them to do.”

Ingraham, who participated in a public-health program last summer in Saints Kitts and Nevis, an island nation in the West Indies, plans to attend nursing school after graduating from UVA. Where she’ll continue her education, however, is unclear.

“Honestly, I’m just trying to keep all my options open,” she said. “Since moving from California to [Virginia], I feel like I can go anywhere I want to do this.”

She might take a gap year in 2018-19 and continue playing softball. Katie Park, a standout for the Cavaliers last season, played in Europe after graduating last year, and the idea of following a similar path intrigues Ingraham.

That decision can wait, Ingraham said. “Right now I’m trying to focus on the season.”

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