By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — They arrived at the University in the summer of 2020 amid a global pandemic, and they found themselves challenged on and off the field that first year, taking online classes and playing in front of sparse crowds because of COVID-19 protocols.

UVA softball’s class of 2024 initially consisted of five players: Leah Boggs, Madison Harris, Mikayla Houge, Lauren VanAssche and Abby Weaver. Savannah Henley, a transfer from Purdue, joined them after the 2021 season, and together they’ve helped turn around a struggling program.

It didn’t happen immediately. In 2021, the Cavaliers posted a 15-33 record, the program’s ninth consecutive losing season, but better days have followed. UVA finished 28-26 in 2022 and then improved to 30-22 last year.

After rallying to defeat NC State 3-2 on Sunday afternoon at Palmer Park, the Wahoos are 28-13 overall and 11-7 in ACC play this season. For the first time in more than a decade, the Hoos will finish with a winning record for a third straight season, and her seniors deserve a healthy share of the credit, said head coach Joanna Hardin.


In an era in which student-athletes routinely enter the transfer portal, the Cavaliers’ Class of 2024 took a different route. They stayed together and persevered through adversity.

“At a time when everyone on the outside tells you, ‘Hey, you’re not getting what you want, just leave,’ they didn’t,” Hardin said. “They chose to stay. They chose to fight, and I’m really, really happy that they get to see the fruits of their labor.”

Her seniors stayed the course, Hardin said, because they love the University and “because they saw the vision and they believed in that. And it’s very unique, it’s uncommon, but that’s this group. They’re uncommon. This is a different group of girls.”

The Hoos will play once more at Palmer Park this season. At 6 p.m. Tuesday, UVA hosts No. 15 Virginia Tech (31-9-1 overall) in the first of two non-conference meetings between the longtime rivals. The Cavaliers celebrated Senior Day on Sunday, however, and, after some tense moments, it turned into a joyous occasion.

“We have a flair for the dramatic, don’t we?” Hardin said, laughing.

Eden Bigham

UVA defeated NC State 2-0 on Friday night but lost 10-9 on Saturday afternoon, and so a series win was at stake Sunday. After four innings, the Wolfpack led 2-0, and it seemed possible that a happy ending might elude the Cavaliers.

“I think we came out feeling a little bit of pressure on the day, obviously, with the emotions of Senior Day,” Hardin said. “These girls want to win for their senior class. I was happy that we kind of settled in.”

In the bottom of the fifth, Virginia sophomore Jade Hylton’s home run made it 2-1, and freshman Bella Cabral came home later that inning to tie the game on a sacrifice fly by Weaver.

Hylton’s homer, her team-leading ninth of the season, let her teammates “take a deep breath,” Weaver said. “We’d had really good at-bats before that and nothing had fallen and it’s really nice to have something fall. Luckily, it fell over the fence. But it’s really nice to see that lead cut in half and just know we’re OK. We’re a great team and we can bounce back.”

In the circle, Eden Bigham became more dominant as the game went on. The sophomore right-hander retired 12 of the final 13 batters she faced, keeping the Hoos close until their offense could break through.

“I feel like that’s always the thing for me,” said Bigham, who improved to 13-6, with a 2.05 earned-run average. “I get warm and get going and I think I get a little bit of confidence out there. And for me, it feels like when the fatigue sets in, that’s when I know I have to work harder and go out and throw harder. We all did a great job on defense holding it down the last few innings.”

Bigham struck out seven and walked only two Sunday. In the top of the seventh, she fanned the first two batters she faced and then retired the third on a groundout. As she headed back to the dugout, Bigham said, “I was like, ‘We’re going to walk it off here.’ ”

The bottom half of the inning went as scripted for the Hoos. Their leadoff batter, sophomore Kelsey Hackett, was hit by a pitch. Boggs followed with a bunt single, and Hackett advanced to the third on the play.

Up came Hylton, who flied out to center field. Cabral drew a walk, loading the bases, and then Hackett raced home with the winning run on Weaver’s second sacrifice fly of the game.

“You have never been more excited to get out, ever,” Weaver said, smiling. “It’s awesome.”

UVA seniors and their families at Palmer Park

Henley suffered a season-ending injury early in the year and is taking a medical redshirt. She’ll be back next season, but her classmates’ college careers are nearing an end, and they still have significant goals to reach this spring.

In a video that played at the end of the postgame Senior Day ceremony, Hardin told the Class of ’24 that “one thing is certain: We’re not done yet. The goal is still ahead, and I know you will continue to lead the charge as we sprint to the finish line.”

Eight regular-season games remain for UVA. After hosting the Hokies on Tuesday, Virginia will play a three-game series against No. 3 Duke (37-4, 16-2) in Durham, N.C. Then comes an April 23 rematch with Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, followed by a three-game series against Georgia Tech (28-17, 11-7) in Atlanta on the final weekend of the regular season.

Only once in program history has Virginia advanced to the NCAA tournament: in 2010. The Cavaliers have put themselves in position to repeat that feat this season, but they know work remains for them.

“The key is just to keep being ourselves,” Weaver said. “We know who we are and there’s no opponent that we’re going to play different than anybody else. Whether you’re ranked No. 3 or you’re not ranked, we’re going to play the exact same.”

The Hoos have played six ACC series this season. Each one has come down a decisive third game, and UVA is 5-1 in series finales.

“I think the heart the fight, the grit, all those things are there,” Hardin said. “At the end of the day, to beat championship teams, to beat great teams, you’ve got to play clean softball … I think we’ve seen the character and the resilience, so we’ve just got to play a little better softball.”

Virginia’s pitchers have sparkled this season, with a collective ERA of 2.26. They’ve received little run support, though, and that give the Cavaliers a thin margin for error in most games. UVA is hitting only .259 and averaging 4.1 runs per game.

Even so, the Hoos are two victories from posting back-to-back 30-win seasons for the first time in about two decades. That’s heady stuff for Weaver and her classmates, who haven’t forgotten the season they suffered through as freshmen in 2021.

“I think that we’ve come really far,” Weaver said, “and it’s because of all the work we do behind the scenes. We grind because we know that we need to. We’re not going to beat anybody just off of pure talent. We’re going to beat everybody off of just passion and grit and just grinding it out.”

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