By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– The 2020 schedule called for the University of Virginia softball team to play 23 games at its sparkling new home, Palmer Park. The Cavaliers played there only six times before concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic shut down college sports.
Head coach Joanna Hardin wishes her team had been able to complete its 2020 schedule, but she took some positives away from the abbreviated season. She’s grateful, first and foremost, that Palmer Park, on which ground was broken in October 2018, opened on time. The Cavaliers moved into the new stadium on Feb. 24 and played their first game there on March 3.
The stadium is named for former UVA softball star Lisa Palmer and her mother, Fran, and they were honored early last month at a ribbon-cutting ceremony and dedication at Palmer Park.
Hardin is delighted the Palmers were able to see the first game at the stadium and that many alumnae of the program have been back to Charlottesville to tour Palmer Park. They include former All-America pitcher Kristen Dennis, who hadn’t been to a home game in more than a decade.
Moreover, UVA’s current players, before returning home to start online classes, were able “to experience [being based] in the facility for a couple of weeks,” Hardin said. “That was something really cool and really fortunate that we got to do, and I think moving forward next year we know that this is our new normal.
“As exciting as things were, with the new stadium and all these opportunities that came before us, it was a lot. There were a lot of non-softball things, so what I’m excited about is coming in next year and knowing this is home. We’re not having to learn how to live at home. We know what to expect.”
That’s true for Hardin, too. “I know how I can structure day-to-day operations now, because we’re so much more efficient,” she said, “and if we had been shut down earlier, let’s say two weeks, three weeks earlier, we would have missed out on all those opportunities.”
“Obviously, when you miss out on 30 games, that’s upwards of 90 to 110 at-bats for some players, and players that really needed those at-bats,” Hardin said. “But that’s everybody. That’s the whole country. That’s every athlete and every freshman, every sophomore. It’s unfortunate, but I think we had a lot of positive things for us to take away that we’re really, really thankful for.”
When the announcement came on March 12 that the NCAA had canceled its remaining 2020 championships––earlier that day, the University had suspended all athletics activities––the softball team was preparing to host ACC rival North Carolina in a three-game series at Palmer Park.
“We’d been following along with everything else that had been going on, so I can’t say I was completely surprised,” Hardin said. “It was just how abrupt, how quick it was. Within three hours you went from preparing for [UNC ace] Hannah George pitching against you this weekend, and then your season’s off.
“But we were fortunate. We were with the team. We were already all together. We weren’t on the practice field. I know a lot of teams were at practice and had to come off the field. We were in a meeting already.”
The team reconvened at Palmer Park the next morning to bid farewell to its departing members: pitcher Riley Wilkinson, managers Adriana Allen and Janelle Zellars, and volunteer assistant Kaitlyn Lipscomb.
Virginia finished the season, its fourth under Hardin, with a 10-12 overall record. The Wahoos were 0-6 in ACC play, but this always figured to be a challenging season for a team with only one player in her final year of eligibility: Wilkinson, a graduate transfer from Princeton.
Of the Cavaliers’ starting position players this season, two were juniors, one was a redshirt sophomore, four were sophomores, and two were freshmen.
Wilkinson, who appeared in six games as a Cavalier, is headed to medical school at the University of Louisville. Everyone else on the roster is expected to return for the Hoos in 2020-21, and a highly regarded five-player recruiting class will join the program.
Hardin said the Cavaliers are “getting athletes and players that add more depth in places where we really need it. We feel like we’re building in areas we hadn’t been able to build.”
She pointed to shortstop Katie Goldberg and third baseman Mikaila Fox, freshmen who started for UVA this season.
“They’re big, they’re strong, they’re athletic,” Hardin said. “They’ve got defensive tools, but they also have a lot of athleticism that we haven’t always had in those areas. And we have depth behind them.
“We have a lot of utility, and we’ll bring in a lot of utility next year. Our three [incoming] position players can play infield and outfield, and one can catch. One could pitch if we needed her to. It opens up our options so much more, which is what we want. We want athletes that can play multiple positions and help us do a lot of different things, and we’ll add to that a lot more in [the Class of ’21], with our committed players. We anticipate over the next two years continuing to build and grow and add depth in the pitching staff.”
UVA’s top three pitchers this season were sophomore Aly Rayle and freshmen Molly Grube and Mackenzie Wooten.
“Molly and Mackenzie filled a big hole [on the staff],” Hardin said. “We were really fortunate to have those two, and Molly was on such an upward trajectory. I’m so bummed that we lost the season, because she was really starting to come on and understand pitching. But I’m excited. I think she has a great future, and we have two pitchers coming in next year, which is also really exciting.”
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