The Virginia softball team opened play in the Mary Nutter Collegiate Classic in Palm Springs, Ca. Thursday night by splitting games against No. 22 Washington and San Diego State.
In the tournament’s first game, the Cavaliers (5-5) lost 7-1 to the Huskies (7-5). Senior starter Melanie Mitchell allowed four earned runs on nine hits in six innings on the mound. Virginia’s lone run came on a double by junior third baseman Karli Johnson in the bottom of the fourth inning to make the score 2-1. Washington took control by scoring five unanswered runs in the seventh and eighth innings and outhit the Cavaliers 12-3 for the game.
Virginia won its second game of the evening against San Diego State, 5-2. The team scored four runs in the third inning as senior catcher Kristen Hawkins led off the inning with her first home run of the year. Mitchell gave up two runs while notching six strikeouts in the 95th complete game of her career, improving to 4-2 on the season. Sophomore outfielder Heidi Velk tallied two hits after having her six-game hitting streak snapped against Washington.
Up next in the Palm Springs Tournament for Virginia is a Friday night game against No. 9 Oregon. The game will be the first of the tournament for the Ducks (8-3), who finished the Easton Desert Classic last weekend with a 4-1 record. Last season, Oregon made it to the Women’s College World Series, where they were ultimately knocked out by No. 1 seed California.
The last two games for Virginia come on Saturday against Colorado State and No. 20 Stanford. The Rams (6-4) ended last year in second place in the Mountain West, their best finish since 2004. Last weekend Colorado State competed in the Troy Cox Classic in Las Cruces, N.M., going 4-1 with wins against Texas Tech, Penn State, New Mexico State and UMKC. They lost their first games of this tournament Friday against Georgia and Oregon State.
The Cardinal (10-2) is looking to improve on last year’s sixth place finish in the Pac-12. They earned an at-large berth into the NCAA Tournament, but were knocked out by Louisiana-Lafayette in the Regional round. They hosted the Stanford Nike Invitational last weekend, going a perfect 5-0 and winning its games by a combined score of 44-0. They will battle against Georgia and Oklahoma State on Friday.
For Virginia, the tournament could serve as a launching pad for a successful season in the ACC. With three of their five opponents currently ranked in the top 25, the Cavaliers have a chance to earn some recognition on a national stage. The team finished last season with a 26-25 record, including 8-12 in the ACC. This year, players feel confident that the team has a chance of making the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010.
“[Our expectation is] always to win the ACC Championship, make it to Regionals and go further than that,” junior second baseman Erica Cipolloni said. “It’s something that I’ve always wanted for me and for the seniors… because they made it their freshman year, so it would be a really good opportunity to repeat what they had that year.”
The Cavaliers’ success will depend in large part on their pitching depth. Mitchell has established herself as a reliable weapon, but the team lacks proven veterans behind her. Freshmen Aimee Chapdelaine and Emma Mitchell likely will need to step up and quickly to give the team the depth it needs.
“The two freshmen are definitely coming into their own,” Mitchell said. “If they can keep throwing strikes and throw like they know they can throw, then we’re gonna do really well.”
Virginia will travel to Rock Hill, S.C. next weekend to compete in the Winthrop University Combat Invitational before opening home play March 6 against Seton Hall.