By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Unlike the teams whose NCAA softball tournament fates were uncertain, Virginia didn’t have to sweat out the selection show. UVA was a lock to make the 64-team field, and the biggest unanswered questions Sunday night were what seed the Cavaliers would receive and to which regional site they’d be sent.

Still, that didn’t lessen the excitement among those associated with a program that first fielded a varsity team in 1980. When UVA was revealed as the No. 2 seed in the four-team regional in Knoxville, Tenn., celebrations broke out around the country.

“It’s been really cool to see how excited everybody is for us, especially those who know the work it’s taken to get here,” Virginia head coach Joanna Hardin said Wednesday at Palmer Park.

In Mississippi, Kristen Hawkins received a phone call from a friend in Pennsylvania. It was Eileen Schmidt, for whom Hawkins played at UVA.

“Coach literally called me as soon as it aired on television, and we were just over the moon about it,” said Hawkins, an assistant coach at Itawamba Community College in Fulton, Miss.

Hawkins was a freshman on the UVA team that in 2010 made the program’s first appearance in the NCAA tournament. The Wahoos were sent to Knoxville that season, too, and they joined Louisville, Ball State and host Tennessee in a regional.

It was an unforgettable experience for the Hoos, but they haven’t played an NCAA tournament game since May 22, 2010. That streak will finally end Friday at the Volunteers’ Sherri Parker Lee Stadium, and the program’s alumni couldn’t be happier for the current Cavaliers.

“It’s a really special achievement,” said Melanie Mitchell, one of UVA’s standouts in 2010.

Also in the double-elimination regional are No. 1 seed Tennessee, No. 3 seed Miami (Ohio) and No. 4 seed Dayton. At noon Friday, Virginia (32-18) meets Miami (48-7), and Tennessee (40-10) and Dayton (33-19) follow at approximately 2:30 p.m.

The Cavaliers are in the eighth season under Hardin, who received countless congratulatory texts Sunday night. One was from Schmidt, a former All-American at UVA who served her alma mater as head coach for six seasons (2008-13).

Under Schmidt, the Hoos practiced and played their home games at The Park, an underwhelming facility tucked away in a remote corner of North Grounds. Palmer Park opened in the spring of 2020, and that’s helped Virginia become relevant in the sport again.

“I’m so happy for Jo,” said Schmidt, who’s now the athletics and activities director for the Daniel Boone Area School District near Reading, Pa. “She grinded it out. She was in a hard spot and she pushed through and got that field  built. They’re reaping the rewards of that, and it’s awesome. It was a long time coming, and it was much-deserved.”

Mitchell, who lives in Charlottesville, was at Palmer Park for the selection show, wearing her T-shirt from the 2010 NCAA tournament.

“It’s been a long road, but they’ve really built it brick by brick,” Mitchell said.

Melanie Mitchell

A 6-foot-1 right-hander, Mitchell was a high school senior in the spring of 2009 when UVA, in its second season under Schmidt, finished 25-22 overall. The Hoos struggled in ACC play that year, but they entered 2010 with optimism.

“We had some older kids that really understood what UVA was and how to navigate it,” Schmidt said, “because part of the gig at Virginia is you have to figure out how to navigate it all, not just the athletics piece.”

Those veterans included junior catcher Alison Van Scyoc, whose maiden name is Pittman. She’s now the head softball coach at Division II Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania.

“I think we knew we were trending upwards, and we felt that way because we were a pretty disciplined team,” Van Scyoc said. “So I think we just had a feeling that there was an opportunity for us to be better. We had some good pieces in place, and then we also knew we were going to get Melanie Mitchell.”

As a freshman in 2010, Mitchell posted a 27-18 record, with a 2.86 earned-run average, and was named to the All-ACC first team.

“We were good because Melanie was good, and her drop ball was incredible,” said Van Scyoc, who caught most of Mitchell’s starts that season. “But I think the reason we were good with her as a freshman, and it’s easy to say this in hindsight, also with a coach’s brain, is that she was really prepared and incredibly attentive to detail.”

Schmidt said: “Softball hasn’t changed any. You gotta have pitching. If you don’t have pitching, it makes it really hard. So if you’re strong in the circle, it just makes life a lot easier, and when you’re strong in the circle, you always have a chance.”

Eileen Schmidt (right)

Seniors in the Cavaliers’ starting lineup were Sarah Tacke, Nicole Koren and Abby Snyder. Tacke and Koren ended the season as second-team All-ACC selections.

“They were phenomenal when it came to leadership,” Hawkins said of the team’s seniors. “They held a high standard and they did not let anyone waver from that, and they pushed you very hard.”

Virginia’s other starters in 2010 were Pittman, Taylor Williams, Clara Kendall, Lauren McCaskey and Giannina Cipolloni. Hawkins started 16 games, taking over when Pittman wasn’t catching.

“That was a good group that really thought they could change things and do something special,” Schmidt said.

Even so, 10 games into the season, the Cavaliers were 3-7. Schmidt knew her team was better than that, and she challenged her players.

“Coach would give us a lot of pep talks,” Hawkins recalled, “and she gave us an ultimatum one day. She said, ‘It’s early in the season, but it’s not too late for anything. So you can make the decision to get on this bus and help drive this bus to where we need to go and be a part of something special.’

“She gave us these tickets and she said, ‘If you accept this ticket, you’re a part of this bus and you’re going to be driving it forward, not sitting in the back of it holding anything back. It’s your choice, day in and day out, and you get to make that choice.’ And I still have that ticket.”

Alison Pittman

Schmidt never panicked. One of Virginia’s victories early in the season was over No. 4 Michigan, and that spoke to her team’s  potential. “It was a very committed group,” Schmidt said. “They spent a lot of extra time out there on the field. They put it on a lot of time on their own.”

Sure enough, the Hoos persevered, and victories started coming with frequency. UVA won five of its seven ACC series, including a sweep of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, and finished the regular season 13-7 in conference play. A midseason upset of No. 2 Arizona at tournament in California further bolstered Virginia’s confidence.

“That win was really big, because it’s Arizona,” Van Scyoc said. “And so I think when we got wins like that versus very storied programs, we were like, ‘OK, we’re going to be in games.’ ”

The Cavaliers experienced some anxious moments on Selection Sunday in 2010, but their worries turned out to be unfounded. They were awarded the No. 3 seed in the Knoxville regional.

Fourteen years later, Mitchell still remembers arriving at the Volunteers’ stadium.

“It was just so surreal,” she said. “Their stadium was a couple years old at that point, but it was still just brand new to us. We had The Park, and our locker room was in U-Hall, so we weren’t really used to good facilities. But you pull up to that stadium and you go into their team room and you have a dedicated locker room and training facility, and they had a media room. Their batting cage was exceptional.

“We were just overwhelmed by how beautiful it was and how dedicated the space was to softball, because we didn’t have [anything like that].”

On May 21, 2010, in their first-ever NCAA game, the Hoos edged No. 2 seed Louisville 1-0. Pittman led off the fourth inning with a triple. The next batter, Snyder, hit a grounder to Louisville’s second baseman, who threw home. In a close play at the plate, Pittman beat the tag to score what proved to be the winning run.

“Definitely a team win,” said Mitchell. who struck out six in tying the program record (27) for victories in a season.

Top-seeded Tennessee, which would go on to reach the Women’s College World Series, defeated Virginia 11-2 on May 22. The Cavaliers’ historic season ended later that day with a 7-4 loss to Louisville in an elimination game.

The trip to the NCAA tournament “was probably my favorite experience of my time at UVA,” Van Scyoc said, “and I think it was just because there was so much excitement about making it to regionals.

“I think that year we floated, being right around the bottom of the top 25, once we got about three-quarters of the way through the year. So it was really exciting. We realized, ‘We do have a shot at this, so let’s finish it out.’ And I will honestly say that even though Tennessee has historically been a powerhouse, I don’t think we were really scared going in. I think that we were just like, ‘Whatever. We’ve beaten Michigan, we’ve beaten Arizona, why not go beat Tennessee too?’ ”

For various reasons, including an oblique injury Mitchell suffered in 2011, the Hoos weren’t able to sustain their 2010 success later in Schmidt’s tenure as head coach.

“After my first year, it just seemed like we had bad luck streak after bad luck streak, of losing players or injuries mostly,” Mitchell said. “It just never came back together for us.”

Virginia’s overall record dipped to 24-31 in 2011. The Cavaliers rebounded to post a 26-25 record in Mitchell’s junior year, but they wouldn’t finish above .500 again until 2022, when they went 28-26. Virginia improved to 30-22 last season and has raised the bar again this spring.

“We’re so excited,” Hawkins said, “because we know what we did was very special, and we really want to see the program do that much better … and let  the world know what Wahoo softball is about, because there is so much potential at the school.”

Van Scyoc agreed. “I’m just really excited for them. I’m excited for the growth of the program in general, with Palmer Park and Coach Hardin being able to have some longevity there, because I do think that’s what you need to get consistency in postseason play. And it’s just really exciting, because I do think the future is bright.”

In 2018, Van Scyoc took her Shippensburg team to Charlottesville to scrimmage UVA and received a warm welcome from Hardin.

“She had realized I was on that 2010 team,” Van Scyoc said, “and she said, ‘We talk about it every year. We’re trying to replicate 2010.’ So she was appreciative then, and I’m really happy for her now.”

To receive Jeff White’s articles by email, click the appropriate box in this link to subscribe.

Kristen Hawkins