The Virginia softball team travels to Baton Rouge this weekend to compete in the Purple & Gold Challenge hosted by Louisiana State University. In addition to the host Tigers, Virginia will play Memphis, North Dakota State and Nicholls State.
The season kicked off for the Cavaliers (2-1, 0-0 ACC) last weekend at the Hampton Inn Invitational at Campbell. Despite falling to the host team 8-0, Virginia came away with a winning record, defeating Robert Morris 4-0 and St. Bonaventure 15-5. Senior pitcher Melanie Mitchell struck out 16 batters in the opener against the Colonials, allowing only two hits in a complete game shutout. Freshman Aimee Chapdelaine bounced back from a loss Friday afternoon to register her first collegiate win against the Bonnies Saturday, giving up five runs in a five-inning complete game performance.
“We didn’t play up to our expectations, but I think it was good that we played Campbell and St. Bonaventure to see pitching and live [action],” junior second baseman Erica Cipolloni said. “This upcoming weekend we’re going to see the true test of how we really perform.”
Up next, the team faces a tough test in Baton Rouge. LSU (4-1, 0-0 SEC) enters the tournament at No. 10 in the nation, and returns all of its pitchers except for Brittany Mack from the team that made it to the College World Series last year. The Tigers also have one of the game’s best home field advantages, with a raucous crowd showing up at every game. Virginia battles LSU twice — once Friday and then again Saturday.
“It should be a really good tournament,” Mitchell said. “LSU is an SEC team, an SEC powerhouse [and] they’re ranked in the top 10 right now, so it should be two good games. Their home environment is a really tough place to play, but it’s a great place to play as well because that atmosphere is electric.”
Virginia’s first opponent will be Memphis Friday afternoon. The Tigers (1-4, 0-0 C-USA) competed last weekend in the Texas Classic, falling twice to North Texas and once to Texas, and splitting two games against Texas A&M Corpus Christi. After a bit of a tumultuous offseason that saw the hiring of two new assistant coaches, Memphis is something of an unknown quantity, but is expected to be a difficult out nonetheless.
Virginia plays North Dakota State in its third game Saturday afternoon. The Bison (1-4, 0-0 Summit) are hoping to repeat as Summit League champions and won’t be taken lightly. The Cavaliers close out the tournament Sunday against Nicholls State (2-2, 0-0 Southland), who finished last season at 14-31.
As Virginia enters the second week of the new season, the team seeks to answer a number of questions. To improve upon last year’s 26-25 mark, the Cavaliers will need to find new depth on the pitching mound. Melanie Mitchell is the sure starter, coming off a season in which she earned second-team All-ACC honors and finished third in the conference in ERA. Behind her though are two untested freshmen in Chapdelaine and Emma Mitchell. Both players come in as highly-touted recruits, Mitchell as the Virginia AAA Pitcher of the Year in 2012 and Chapdelaine as a finalist for Gatorade Player of the Year. The team hopes that the two can translate their high school success to the college level and will need that to happen in order for the Cavaliers to achieve their goal of winning the ACC.
“After Melanie, we’re young,” coach Eileen Schmidt said. “We were going to be young no matter what anyway in that spot, but you’re looking for someone to emerge and not necessarily at the Mel caliber, because it’s taken Mel four years to get to that. You’re looking for someone, between Emma and [Aimee], that can really get us six to seven wins, keep us in games, get the midweeks in [and] spell that second ACC game so that Mel is fresh at the end of the year, because that’s ideally what you want.”
At the plate, the Cavaliers are trying to improve their offensive production. A major component of the team’s game will be stealing bases. Virginia features speed throughout the lineup, which will allow the team to take advantage of opponents’ miscues so long as hitters get on base.
“Everybody on this team can run, from the biggest to the smallest, and they make great decisions.” Schmidt said. We saw in the third game that we do have the ability to go with the long-ball and we do have the ability to hit the gaps. If you put those things together, it’s an interesting offense, because no matter what happens, we do have the ability to score if we’re not hitting the ball solidly.”
The team will travel to California the weekend after the LSU tournament to participate in the Mary Nutter Collegiate Classic.