By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE – At the corner of Massie and Copeley roads, down the hill from Klöckner Stadium, the University of Virginia’s new softball facility is taking shape, piece by piece, day by day.
All-ACC first baseman Lacy Smith passes the construction site regularly, and she acknowledges having mixed feelings about the project. The Cavaliers will move from their current home, The Park, an underwhelming facility tucked away in a corner of North Grounds, into a new stadium and player development center before the start of next season.
“When I was recruited here, I was told we were going to have a [new] stadium, and all this stuff was going to happen,” said Smith, a senior from Lancaster, Pa.
She smiled. “That was how many years ago? And I’m sure there were people way before me who heard the same thing. But it’s awesome to finally see it happen, and I can’t wait to come back and see the beautiful stadium. And while it’s frustrating I won’t get to play in it, I know my senior class played a part in making it happen.”
In the first round of the ACC tournament, No. 10 seed Virginia (22-30) meets No. 7 seed Georgia Tech (30-26) at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday in Tallahassee, Fla. The winner advances to face second-seeded Florida State (48-8) in the quarterfinals at 5 p.m. Thursday.
The Wahoos enter the ACC tourney on a five-game winning streak that included a stunning series sweep of NC State.
When they headed to Raleigh, N.C., last month, the Hoos had dropped 18 of their previous 19 games. But they defeated the Wolfpack 12-0, 8-5 and 11-7 to qualify for the ACC tournament for the second time in three seasons.
“We kind of went in with the thought that there was nothing to lose, but in fact there was a lot to lose,” Smith said. “But after the [previous] three weekends, where we didn’t come out with the outcomes we wanted, we decided there was nothing to lose. We might as well play free and play as a team and come together.”
Given their inexperience, it’s not surprising the Cavaliers have been inconsistent this season. Underclassmen dominate the roster. UVA has five seniors – Smith, Erika Osherow, Tabby Dabney, Olivia Gott and Allyson Frei, a graduate transfer from BC – and only one junior, Ashlee Davis.
Three of the seniors – Smith, Osherow and Gott – came to UVA in the summer of 2015, when Blake Miller was head coach. (Dabney transferred to Virginia from Richard Bland College in 2017.) Miller stepped down after the 2016 season, and Joanna Hardin took over as head coach.
The transition to a new coaching staff and a new philosophy can be challenging for returning players, Hardin said, but Smith, Osherow and Gott have “really developed and grown a lot. Just being faithful and staying the course and sticking with it is a big legacy they’ll leave behind. When things get really hard, it’s easy to walk away and try to find greener pastures somewhere else.”
On Tuesday, the 5-foot-9 Smith became only the second Cavalier since 2010 – Katie Park was the other, in ’17 – to be named to the All-ACC first team. She leads the Cavaliers with a .413 batting average, and her 15 home runs are a school record. She also has 15 doubles and a team-high 43 RBI.
With a slugging percentage of .788, Smith is on track to break the program record of .766 set by Kristen Dennis in 2002.
“It’s a testament to her work,” Hardin said. “She’s strong. We knew that from day one, so the power potential’s always been there. But I think her work and her investment have made a big difference.
“She really worked very diligently over the summer and over the Christmas break. She was very set: This is my last year, I’m going to leave it all out there, and she did the work. I think a lot of people have that desire, but when it actually comes down to the nitty gritty and doing the work, it’s hard.”
Smith has filled a variety of roles during her career. As a freshman in 2016, she started 19 games in the circle. As a sophomore, she had 28 pitching appearances and started 19 games in the outfield. As a junior, she split time between pitcher and third base.
In none of those seasons did Smith hit as well as she has this year. She hit .213 in 2016, with no home runs and two RBI; .237 in 2017, with eight homers and 17 RBI; and .238 last season, with six homers and 28 RBI.
“I think she’s matured a lot,” Hardin said. “She doesn’t give away a lot of at-bats, and she doesn’t give away a lot of pitches [during] at-bats. And so she’s able to adjust pitch to pitch, at-bat to at-bat. She’s really smart. She knows what she’s looking for. She knows what she hits well.”
Smith said: “I’ve definitely worked on that this year in particular, striking out less and focusing more on quality swings. In the fall we were like, ‘Line drives, line drives.’ The mistakes are the ones that go over the fence, but there are too many good pitchers nowadays, and they would put it right past me if that’s all I was going for. So it’s been a good adjustment this year.”
She’s made four pitching appearances this season, but all came early in the year.
“I think us eliminating her from the circle and just saying, Focus on defense and hitting, was kind of a relief for her,” Hardin said.
Smith was happy to pitch when needed, she said, but it’s been “really great to have the opportunity to do this year what I thought I was going to do from the start.”
With 29 career home runs, Smith is tied for fourth with Dennis on Virginia’s all-time list. Sarah Tacke (2007-10) is third with 30, Danni Ingraham (2015-18) is second with 33, and Sara Larquier (2003-06) holds the program record with 35.
“I think my first year kind of set me back, having none,” Smith said.
Until last month, Dennis held the program record for homers in a season, with 13. Smith broke that mark on April 23 with a three-run shot against JMU. She added No. 15 in the series finale at NC State, hitting a two-run homer in the top of the seventh to extend Virginia’s lead to 11-7.
“That was a bomb,” Hardin said.
Coming home from Raleigh, Smith said, the players “were all really happy, and the coaches were really happy, but there was no shock. I think that was really good to see. We came in and did our job, and that’s what’s we were supposed to do.
“I think moving forward for this program, you shouldn’t be shocked when you sweep [a series]. It should become a norm to make this program great.”
Smith will graduate this month with a double major in economics and media studies. For the past three years, she’s been active with UVA’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, on which each of the school’s 27 varsity teams has at least two representatives. Her 2018-19 term as SAAC’s vice president of external affairs ended recently.
“I think SAAC was easily one of my favorite things at UVA,” Smith said. “I got to meet so many people. I met Ally Frei” – who was then at Boston College – “two years ago at the ACC [SAAC conference]. It’s just a small world, and it allowed me to get out of my comfort zone and talk in front of large groups of people and show my passion for sports and the role it plays.
“That’s why I want to be in sports after [college], because I see how much of a difference it brings to people’s lives.”
After graduating, Smith will move to New York City. She’s accepted a position in advertising with Home Team Sports, a sales unit of FOX Sports. For now, though, she’s focused on extending her college career for as long as possible.
“I do not want to know when my last game is,” Smith said. “I want to keep playing.”