The Virginia softball team takes its best early-season record since 1993 to Orlando today to compete in the weekend-long Citrus Classic. The Cavaliers (11-2) face the stiffest competition they have seen all season with a field which includes No. 16 Michigan and No. 18 Oregon.
"I definitely feel like we've prepared," junior shortstop Alex Skinkis said. "There are good teams this week in this tournament, but we know what to do, and we're definitely going to build on what we've done this season and be successful."
The Cavaliers enter the tournament hoping their early-season success will translate into strong performances both this week in Orlando and when ACC play begins shortly thereafter.
Virginia's offense has been performing unusually well, with seven players currently batting at .300 or more. In 2011 only two players ended the season above that mark, and only one achieved the feat in 2010. The Cavaliers average more than six runs a game. Their success has come not just from hitting but also strong base running and taking advantage of opponents' missteps.
"Our team is very aggressive," senior outfielder Giannina Cipolloni said. "One of the things we do is run on balls in the dirt, and not a lot of teams do that. We're just really aggressive, and it causes the other teams to make errors and allows us to score more runs."
Virginia's pitching has been the driving force behind many of the squad's victories. Cavalier pitchers boast a stingy 1.70 ERA on the season - a number helped by junior pitcher Melanie Mitchell's 0.85 ERA in 49.2 innings pitched. Mitchell accounts for 67 of the team's 97 strikeouts. Sixteen of those strikeouts have come on called third strikes. She has walked just three batters all season.
Freshman Rachel Gillen and senior Stephanie Coates complement Mitchell's power. Gillen and Coates have four wins, one loss and 30 strikeouts in the 37 innings pitched between the two of them. All three pitchers will likely see action this weekend.
"It's still preseason for us so really what we're trying to do is continue to have Mel grow and get hotter," coach Eileen Schmidt said. "But at the same time, you want to have Gillen and Coates face some of the tougher teams just so they're a little bit battle-tested for what we're going to see in the ACC and then in the postseason."
Virginia kicks off tournament play today with games against Penn State and St. John's. The Nittany Lions (2-6) have struggled on the mound this season - three opponents have put up double-digit run totals against them, and they sport an unimpressive 4.81 ERA.
St. John's (2-10) is also struggling with pitching issues and is looking to get into the same offensive groove it did last season. The Red Storm, who put up more than four runs per game last year, has been shut out in two of its last seven outings. Virginia faced St. John's last season and cruised to a 15-8 victory.
The schedule picks up tomorrow when the Cavaliers square off with Syracuse (5-5) and Michigan (11-4). Despite the Orange's mediocre record, Syracuse is a strong squad which has absorbed four of those five losses against opponents ranked in the top 15. The Orange are the reigning Big East champions and have made the NCAA tournament two years running. Virginia split a pair of games with Syracuse last season, winning the first 2-1 but then falling 13-8 the next day.
"Syracuse always swings the bat, and they have the good pitching in [senior] Jenna Caira, the Canadian national team player, who beat Team USA," Schmidt said. "I like the way we match up though, because we're both pretty athletic teams."
Following the Syracuse game, Virginia faces Michigan, Virginia's second ranked opponent this season. The Wolverines finished last season with a 53-6 record and won their fourth consecutive Big Ten title. They already have four shutout wins this season, and all three Michigan pitchers boast a sub-2.00 ERA.
The Cavaliers wrap up play Sunday against Oregon (8-2). Oregon, which lost only two starters from last year, finished the 2011 season third in the Pac-12 - a conference which sent six teams to Super Regionals last year, including the Ducks.
The Ducks are already off to a hot start, out-scoring opponents by almost five runs per game. The Cavaliers managed to pull off an upset against the Ducks last year, winning 3-2 exactly one year prior to this weekend's match-up.
"Certainly Oregon and Michigan have the history," Schmidt said. "Michigan is pretty young this year though, and Oregon has a second-year new coach so I like our chances in all our games we're playing this weekend"