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Virginia softball heads south

Last weekend's losing record fails to dampen Cavaliers' spirit

The Virginia softball team travels to South Carolina this weekend to compete in the Winthrop University Combat Invitational for its final early-season tournament before starting home play. The Cavaliers (6-7) will face off against Rhode Island, Winthrop, Hartford, UNC Greensboro and Furman.

Last weekend, the team played in the Mary Nutter Collegiate Classic in Palm Springs, Calif., where wins against San Diego State and Colorado State were dampened by losses to top-25 teams No. 18 Washington, No. 10 Oregon and No. 16 Stanford. Despite the weekend’s losing record, the players drew encouragement from their overall performance, including a 4-0 shutout loss to the Cardinal.

“I think our best game we played was against Stanford,” junior third baseman Marcy Bowdren said. “Although [Stanford freshman pitcher Kelsey Stephens] threw a perfect game, it didn’t really show because everyone was whaling at the ball, getting really good pieces off her, they just made some great plays on us. Colorado State was a great win. Overall it was a decent playing performance.”

A big benefit of participating in the California tournament was getting exposure to very talented teams. Of Virginia’s five opponents, four played in last year’s NCAA Tournament, two advanced to Super Regionals, and one — Oregon — even made it to the College World Series. The Cavaliers won’t have many more opportunities to see how they match up against some of the nation’s best pitching and hitting, and the coaches are refusing to squander the experience.

“It certainly shows you what you need to do on an everyday performance on the field to be considered that [good],” coach Eileen Schmidt said. “I think really the separation is consistency and depth. It’s just us getting to that consistent piece.”

Up first for the Cavaliers this weekend is a Friday afternoon matchup against Rhode Island (0-3). The Rams hope to rebound from a tough season last year in which they finished 21-32-1 and near the bottom of the A-10 standings. Later that afternoon Virginia battles host team Winthrop (4-7). In their most recent outing, the Eagles played in the Easton Bama Bash, finishing with a record of 2-3, which included a five-run loss to top-ranked Alabama. Despite finishing last in the Big South each of the last two seasons, Winthrop’s home-field advantage makes it a formidable foe.

Virginia’s tournament continues Saturday with games against Hartford and UNC Greensboro. The Hawks (1-4) have competed in only one tournament so far this year, earning their sole win against Savannah State in the Florida International University Classic. The Spartans (11-2, 0-0 Southern), meanwhile, have started 2013 on a great note. They hosted last weekend’s Spartan Classic and finished a strong 4-1 during the tournament.

The weekend ends for the Cavaliers with a Sunday game against Furman (6-4), who most recently dropped both contests of a two-game series at USC Upstate.

“You have UNC Greensboro, who always is top-notch, conference-wise,” Schmidt said. “Winthrop is always in the mix in the Big South, and then URI, Hartford and Furman. These are teams that we need to compete well with.”

The Winthrop Invitational will be the final of four early-season tournaments for Virginia taking place away from Charlottesville. The constant travel severely limits time the players can spend working on their skills in practice but also prepares them for the rigors of ACC play. With the team yearning to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010, players are willing to put in the work at the beginning of the year if it will help them play strong at the end. Sophomore third baseman Megan Harris said the work is already paying dividends.

“We’re getting more confident with our swings, getting into the feel with the players that we’re playing beside,” Harris said. “We have a few injuries that are causing some movement around, so we’re trying to get the feel for everybody in all the positions. The weekends have really helped us get used to each other.”

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