By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — A stretch of seven games in five days figures to the test the University of Virginia softball team’s depth and stamina. The first five of those games, however, are at Palmer Parker, and for that the Cavaliers are thankful.

“We love playing at home,” UVA head coach Joanna Hardin said. “We love playing in front of our fans. We love playing at Palmer Park. It’s nice to not have to pack up our bags on Wednesday night and hit the road.”

The first two weekends of the season found the Wahoos at tournaments hosted by top-20 programs South Carolina and Alabama, respectively.

“It’s awesome just being able to play in front of your own fans,” sophomore Jade Hylton said Friday night after UVA’s home opener. “We’ve played in some tough environments, the last two weekends, both SEC schools, so it was just nice coming back home. A little ‘party at Palmer’ is what we always say.”

Virginia is hosting the four-team Rawlings Classic, which started Friday. In the last of the day’s three games, UVA recorded a run-rule victory over Lehigh, winning 9-0 in five innings.

The Hoos (7-4) are scheduled to play twice Saturday, against Lehigh (2-7) at 12:30 p.m. and Iowa State (7-4) at 3 p.m. Virginia will wrap up the event Sunday with a doubleheader (12:30 and 3 p.m.) against Delaware (6-4).

Then comes a Tuesday afternoon doubleheader against Radford (6-3) in Roanoke.

“It’s a lot of games,” Hardin said.

The Cavaliers open ACC play next weekend with a three-game series against Boston College at Palmer Park. This is their eighth season under Hardin, and they’re looking to advance to the NCAA tournament for only the second time in program history. (The first was in 2010.)

To reach the NCAAs, the Hoos know, they’ll need to beat some of the high-caliber teams on their schedule. They had chances to do so in Columbia, S.C., and in Tuscaloosa, Ala. The Cavaliers lost twice to South Carolina, by scores of 6-1 and 7-1, but their two games against Alabama were more competitive. The Crimson Tide edged UVA 3-1 and 3-2.

“If anything, last weekend told me we can compete with anybody,” Hylton said. “We all came home and we knew the game against Alabama was close, but that just wasn’t good enough for us.”

Hardin’s takeaways from the first two weekends?

“I liked that we were getting better, that we were learning, that we were growing and sticking with it,” she said. “I saw a lot of toughness. I saw a lot of fight. I saw a lot of get-after-it. What I wanted to see improvement on was the execution. I thought we had a couple of opportunities against both South Carolina and Alabama that just slipped through the cracks and we know that those games are really important for us in pursuing our goals for the NCAA tournament. So we were a little disappointed with those outcomes.”

Jade Hylton

The Cavaliers practiced well ahead of their home opener, Hardin said, and they pounced on Lehigh. UVA sophomore Eden Bigham struck out the first three batters she faced, and in the bottom half of the first inning Hylton’s three-run home run made it 3-0.

Bigham was just getting started. She fanned the first 12 batters she faced and finished with a career-best 14 strikeouts. She knew her strikeout total was increasing by the inning, Bigham said, “but I tried not to think about it. I tried to push it aside.”

She gave up only one hit, a one-out single in the fifth, after which Bigham struck out the next two batters. The Cavaliers then scored five runs in the bottom of the fifth, the final two coming across the plate on a Hylton double that ended the game.

Bigham’s gem allowed the Hoos to save their bullpen, and “it just gives us some momentum going into the rest of the weekend,” Hardin said.

Hylton knew she had an opportunity to help the Cavaliers get some extra rest. “My teammate Sarah Coon, after she grounded out, she came up to me when I was about to go up to bat, and she was like, ‘Walk it off right here, baby.’ ”

In 2023, when the Cavaliers finished 30-22 overall, Hylton was the only starter to hit better than .300. She’s started slowly at the plate this season, but Hylton went 3 for 3 with five RBI against Lehigh.

“She can run, she can hit, she can hit for power,” Hardin said, “but Jade has so much more in her tank and we want to see her maximize her tools. I think the first couple of weekends were a little bit frustrating for her. Her timing was a little bit off and she was pressing a little bit, overthinking a little bit. And so for her to clear it up and just go out and compete today and let Jade be Jade is really, really important.”

Sarah Coon (7)

Hylton is from Martinsville, and Bigham is from Rustburg, and they grew up playing travel ball together.

“We’ve been really, really close for a long time,” Bigham said. “We live together now, and I’m really, really happy for her. She’s a great teammate and a great person and a great softball player. She deserves nothing but the best and I’m not surprised by her performance.”

Coon, a junior, had two doubles Friday night, and classmate Kelly Ayer singled twice and scored two runs.

With the win, Bigham improved to 3-2 and lowered her earned-run average to 3.55. As a freshman last year, she was named to the All-ACC third team, but she faltered late in the season as Virginia’s NCAA tournament hopes faded.

“I definitely think I’ve learned from that,” Bigham said.

Hardin’s staff includes two new assistants: pitching coach Jamie Allred and hitting coach Jeff Tylka. With Bigham, Allred has emphasized “mental toughness and grittiness [in] everything from how they train, to what they talk about, what they think about,” Hardin said.

In Virginia’s second game against Alabama, Bigham allowed one run in the first inning and two runs in the second. That wasn’t an ideal start, but the coaches “just walked out there and said, ‘You have to fight this out,’ ” Hardin recalled Friday night.

Bigham shut out Alabama the rest of the way, and she’ll be better for having “had the opportunity to fight through a tough game,” Hardin said. “It’s growth.”

As she gains more experience in the circle, Bigham will continue to improve, Hardin said, and the coaches are eager to see her “decide it’s time to step up and be the ace that we know she can be for us. She’s a sophomore. She’s still young, and she’s learning, and it’s a big load to carry early in your career.”

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