With the 2013 season nearing its end, the Virginia softball team prepares to bid farewell to a legend. This player has led the team through highs and lows, setting an example for others to follow. She holds nearly every major Virginia career pitching record, leaving her mark in the books and in the hearts of her teammates and coaches. Senior pitcher Melanie Mitchell is the face of a program, and has made Virginia softball a nationally-recognized name.
“I like to lead by example,” Mitchell said. “I’m not a very loud person, I’m not a very rah-rah cheering type, but you just have to get people in line. When you’re the pitcher, the attention is on you and you need keep everyone calm around you. You start and end every play. It’s just the way the game is.”
Even before she arrived at Virginia, Mitchell had the potential to be a standout player. As a senior at McDonough High School, she led her team to a perfect 19-0 record and the 2009 Maryland 2A State Championship, and was named Maryland Gatorade Player of the Year in the process. Recruited by numerous top schools, she chose to take her talents to Charlottesville and play for a team that had never made the NCAA Tournament.
The often difficult transition from high school to college posed no problem for Mitchell. In her first season on the mound for the Cavaliers in 2010, she tied the school record for wins in a season with 27 and was named first team All-ACC. More important than any individual accomplishment, however, Mitchell helped guide Virginia to its first ever NCAA Tournament appearance.
“In high school there’s not much competition, so you’re really excited and ready to go to college,” Mitchell said. “Our first year we played a very tough schedule and we were able to get some really good wins early in the season against top teams and that was really exciting. I knew we had girls on the team that were fourth-years and fifth-years and we just constantly played for them. We were a really good team unit.”
Mitchell battled through injury in her second season, though she still managed to lead the team to a 6-0 upset of top-seeded Georgia Tech in the ACC tournament and was named to the All-Tournament Team. She followed that up with a career-best 1.55 ERA in her junior year, ranking in the top three in the conference and garnering second-team All-ACC honors. Mitchell has continued her stellar production this year despite the team’s struggles, leading the team every day in practice and on the field.
“We’ve seen her grow up a lot, and she’s done a great job,” coach Eileen Schmidt said. “She’s a complete package of a person, academics and athletics — just branching out. It’s been a pleasure to watch her grow up.”
Beyond her normal pitching duties, Mitchell has been called upon to prepare the team for when she won’t be here anymore. The other two pitchers on the Virginia roster, Aimee Chapdelaine and Emma Mitchell, are both freshmen and are still working to adjust to the greater rigor of collegiate softball.
“Mel’s really helped, and what I really admire about Mel is that she’s led by example,” Chapdelaine said. “If I have a question, she’s always there. And she’s been amazing over the course of her four years. Especially looking up to her and having someone that is almost like a friend, but someone that knows so much, it’s really nice to be able to speak to her.”
No Cavalier understands Mitchell’s dedication to the game better than senior catcher Kristen Hawkins. Few relationships in sports are closer than that of a pitcher and her catcher, and the pair have been through all four years together — close teammates on the field and close friends off. When Kristen was cleared to play this weekend, only two weeks after suffering an injury most said would keep her out the rest of the season, Mitchell was one of the first people she called with the good news. They have worked together through highs and lows, and the program will sorely miss both players in the years to come.
“Me and Mel were roommates our first year,” Hawkins said. “We have a really good chemistry for a pitcher and catcher. Mel’s work ethic is amazing. She wants to win just as badly as I do. It makes for a great bond because I hate losing. Being able to catch for someone like that is awesome.”
Years from now, the name Melanie Mitchell and Virginia softball will still be synonymous. Simply looking through the record books, she tops the list for most career pitching stats — wins, strikeouts, innings pitched, complete games, pitching appearances and games started. This season she started her own club, becoming the only Virginia pitcher to eclipse 1,000 career strikeouts. But if you ask her, the records she’ll leave behind aren’t nearly as important as the work she’s done to improve Virginia softball as a whole.
“It’s exciting to leave your name behind,” Mitchell said. “I’m also excited to see the direction the program is going to go from here on out. I’ve just had a lot of opportunities to throw and I’ve just been trying to be as successful as I can be for the team.”
Mitchell has left a mark that will not soon leave the record books, and will be seen forever on the field and in her teammates. Long after this season’s end, she will be remembered as a star, a teacher, a friend and a Cavalier.