By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE – The University of Virginia softball team’s third season under head coach Joanna Hardin and her assistants, Kaleigh Rafter and Katie Repole, begins Feb. 8 at the FAU First Pitch Classic in Boca Raton, Fla.
Tournaments in Elon, N.C., and Knoxville, Tenn., will follow for the Cavaliers, whose home opener is scheduled for Feb. 28 against Rutgers at The Park.
In June 2016, Hardin came to UVA from McNeese State, where in two seasons as head coach she posted a 79-34 record, with one trip to the NCAA tournament. A significant rebuilding project awaited her in Charlottesville, where her predecessor, Blake Miller, had gone 42-116 overall and 12-59 in the ACC in his three seasons.
In 2017, Hardin’s first season with the Cavaliers, they qualified for the ACC tournament for the first time since 2013. They finished 22-32 overall and 9-17 in league play, their most ACC wins since 2010.
With a roster that included only two seniors, Allison Davis and Danni Ingraham, UVA took a step back in 2018, finishing 12-41 overall and 1-20 in ACC play. But Hardin sees better days coming for her program, as she made clear in an interview Friday with VirginiaSports.com.
How’s the preseason going?
Hardin: “Practices have been great. The kids came back in great shape from their winter program. We’ve gotten off to a great start. It’s been fun and exciting, and we’re ready to rock two weeks from today.”
The biggest storyline with UVA softball right now, of course, is the new stadium that’s under construction next to the intersection of Massie and Copeley roads. How often do you swing by the site to check on the progress of the project?
Hardin: “We get to drive by it every day, because we go to practice [at The Park], and so it’s a reminder of just how thankful we are for the future and what’s coming. There’s a spot up at Klöckner Stadium where if you walk down a little ways you can see [construction on the softball stadium], and it’s exciting, and I get up there every once in a while just to see it and see it all unfold before our eyes.”
The stadium is becoming reality in large part because of the generosity of one of the greatest players in UVA softball history, Lisa Palmer, who’s also had a fantastic career in business. What’s it been like for you to get to know Lisa and her mother, Frances, and what do they mean for the program?
Hardin: “Lisa and Fran have both been unbelievable. They’ve had an unbelievable impact on our program. They’re difference-makers. They epitomize our mission statement, and that’s to positively impact the lives of others and compete for championships. They allow us to do that, and they live that every single day. They love the players. They love providing opportunities for women to grow and to develop themselves. And they don’t just talk the talk. They walk the walk. They’re inspiring, they’re humble, they’re so down to earth, and I feel incredibly blessed to have them in my life as people, as well for our program. It’s amazing when one of your own gives back and can do something like that, and we have so many alumni that do so much for us, and we’re so grateful for all of them.”
The stadium is scheduled to be ready for the start of the 2020 season, which means all of your current players, except the seniors, will have an opportunity to play there. What’s their reaction to the project been?
Hardin: “There’s a lot of anticipation. Obviously, I think, our senior class would want to play in it, but they realize that this opens up so many doors for the future, and they’re just really proud of our program, and our underclassmen and junior class are just excited for the future. As [the project] continues to grow and come to fruition, it will be more real. Right now, you see dirt moving, but pretty soon that’s going to take form. There’s just a lot of excitement. We know that we have a job to do this year, and so we can’t look past the ’19 season, but there’s a great energy about the program right now.”
What impact do you expect the stadium to have on recruiting?
Hardin: “The biggest message across the board has been that the administration, the University, is supportive of softball. I think it’s a tangible way to show our recruits that softball matters here. And we’ve known that from the inside, but sometimes you need a big step and a big movement to show that. It’s really helped us to prove what we already knew: that [UVA] supports softball. That’s been the most exciting piece. Bricks and mortar are great, but when you can show the support of your sport, that goes a lot farther with recruits and families, I think.”
Carla Williams began her tenure as athletic director here in December 2017. At what point did you realize she was an advocate for softball?
Hardin: “When she came in, she met with all the head coaches, and when I sat down for our first meeting, she knew all the statistics from ESPN [on softball broadcasts] and all the numbers. She actually quoted that to me and told me about the draw that softball has with ESPN and what those numbers look like in the country. She gets it. She understands that this game is growing immensely. ESPN loves us right now, and she was on board from day one. She understands there has to be support, and she’s been nothing but amazing in this process.”
This is your third year at UVA. How much progress have you made in establishing the culture you want in your program?
Hardin: “Culture is a funny thing. It’s established so much by the vision of the staff that comes in, but really your players run the ship. They sail it. And so our responsibility is to set the structures and to put the things in motion and provide the resources that we believe are important for them. But they have to use them and believe it and go with it, and I think this team has embraced challenges, and they love each other. It’s fun. This spring training session has been really fun. They’re growing. They’re asking good questions. They’re handling failure really well, and they’re just excited for each other.
“And so the vibe is very positive. But this is a very, very competitive group, so it’s been really, really enjoyable to see them taking ownership and taking leadership, but also not neglecting the work that has to be done. They have a great understanding of all of that.”
The 2018 season was a trying one for your team, in part because of its inexperience. Are your returning players stronger for the adversity they faced?
Hardin: “We talk about this. Character and faith are really tested when things get really hard, right? It’s easy to buy in and be all in to something when you’re getting exactly what you want, but can you continue to believe and have faith when you’re not getting what you want? And we were really tested last year, and we’ve had challenges and experiences even this year.
“Personally, last year was hard for me, too. You can second-guess yourself. It was challenging, and I had to really look at myself in the mirror at the end of that year and say, ‘OK, what do I need to do differently? It starts with me.’ Something I try to live by is, you’ve got the check the log in your own eye before you point at the speck in someone else’s eye. So I had to check myself and say, ‘Where do I need to get better?’ It was a tough summer, but it was a very good summer for me.”
Your roster is interesting, to say the least: You have 10 true freshmen, one redshirt freshman, seven sophomores, five seniors and only one junior. So, underclassmen make up 75 percent of your team. What’s are the challenges that come with coaching a group that young and that inexperienced?
Hardin: “Our staff talked about that right when we came into this year, and we said, ‘What’s this going to look like?’ We decided to have no expectations. Let’s just go in and see what it is. I’ll be honest: We’re young, but this is the most competitive and fun and enjoyable experience that you could have with such a young team. I think our [inexperience] shows itself at times, but there’s been a different sense of ownership and a different sense of competitiveness about this group, and I think our freshmen are a big piece of that. They came in, put their heads down and went to work. They didn’t let a lot of stuff get them distracted.
“They had the highest GPA we’ve had in the fall for a freshman class since we’ve been here, by a significant number. The freshman class has been refreshing.”
One of your veterans is a graduate transfer, Allyson Frei, who was an outstanding pitcher for Boston College. How did she end up in Charlottesville?
Hardin: “I think this was a great fit for Ally. She fits our culture. We had a great program that she got into, and she’s getting a master’s [from the McIntire School of Commerce]. It’s a one-year program. It was just a perfect fit for her, and we needed her, and she knew that she was going to be a pretty important piece to our puzzle, and I think it just worked out really well. She’s a wonderful, wonderful addition as a human, but also as a pitcher. The leadership and experience that she brings with her has really been a big piece of the camaraderie and the energy that we have.”
At BC, Ally made 115 appearances and had a career ERA of 2.71. Among her highlights last season was a two-hit shutout of Florida State, which went on to win the NCAA title. Pitching is paramount in your sport. What do expect her impact to be?
Hardin: “She’s going to have a huge impact, but I think your impact is only as big as your character. Yes, she can throw and she’s got a great arm and she has great stuff, but Ally has great character. She’s a worker. She’s humble. She doesn’t put herself above anybody else. We push her a little harder. We put her in tougher situations, and she’s handled it with grace. The demands of her schoolwork are really challenging, and she’s handled it unbelievably well.”
Your sophomores gained a lot of valuable experience last year. Given that you have only junior on the roster, do you need your second-years to carry themselves as upperclassmen this season?
Hardin: “Absolutely. They were in a really unique spot last year. Some of them got thrown in the fire, and we had some injuries and some things that you just can’t anticipate. That experience has been invaluable for them. They’ve really had to play the role of upperclassmen and grow up pretty quick. They’ve handled that really well. They’ve been communicative and very much seeking ways to continue to build the program, and that’s pretty unique from a younger class.”
What about your senior class?
“They’re passionate and very intent about leaving a legacy. They love this team, they love this program, they love this university, they love being Wahoos. So, it’s really been cool to see them grow and mature, and they’ve taken such great care of this program. They’re doing a great job. We don’t need them to do any more than what they can do, and we don’t need them to be something that they’re not. They’ve worked really hard, and they’ve earned what they have, and so we just want them to go play and enjoy it and be themselves, and that’s really going to impact our program for the long haul.”
Any sense of how this season will unfold?
Hardin: “I think we’re going to enjoy it. Sometimes the game can feel like a job, and it gets dreary, and obviously losing contributes to that. But I think it’s just going to be a really enjoyable experience. I know we’re going to be better, and I know we’re going to enjoy being together. It’s going to be an experience. We’re going to win games, we’re going to lose games, we’re going to have close games, there’s going to be blowouts. A 56-game season is a lot of games, but I really enjoy this group of girls, and it is going to be a fun ride, and we’re ready to go.”