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Softball hits off season against Eastern Michigan

Former Oregon assistant Blake Miller begins first year at the helm

Virginia softball kicks off its season this weekend at the USC Upstate Tournament in Spartanburg, S.C. The 2014 edition of Cavalier softball looks and feels much different than the team which took to the diamond last year, and five games spread throughout the three-day tournament will go a long way in determining the team’s identity.

Head coach Blake Miller will begin his first season at Virginia after serving three years as the top assistant coach at Oregon, where he focused heavily on hitting. During his time at Eugene, the Ducks made it to three NCAA Super Regionals, including a trip to the College World Series in 2012. In addition to his prowess at coaching high-powered offenses, Miller is known for the passion he brings to the game.

“He loves what he does, and he comes out fired up,” sophomore pitcher Aimee Chapdelaine said. “Because of his intensity we come ready and excited to play every day.”

Miller’s coaching philosophy exemplifies this inner fire. He said he wants a team which takes big cuts, hits the ball far and swipes as many bags as possible. In short, Miller wants the opposing team to feel pressured at all times.

“We’re going to swing and be aggressive,” Miller said. “We will steal constantly. I’m not worried about running ourselves out of innings. Our talent base allows us to put on pressure and force mistakes.”

Miller’s arrival coincides with the Cavaliers’ desperate need for a revamped offense. Virginia has posted a sub-.500 conference record in each of the previous three seasons, including a 4-17 mark in 2013. Much of last year’s woes could be attributed to their anemic offense — the Cavaliers scored 3.59 runs per game and hit a very meager .236 as a team.

Virginia also lost five seniors at the end of 2013, all of whom contributed to the team significantly. Among the departed players are Kristen Hawkins, the team leader in doubles, Taylor Williams, second in stolen bases and pitcher Melanie Mitchell, who owned the Virginia career record in every major pitching category. Replacing any of these individual players — let alone the whole of them — poses a pointed challenge. Fortunately, the cupboard was not left completely bare.

The Cavaliers have several returners who were cogs for the team last year, including senior second baseman Marcy Bowdren, who led the team in hits, runs scored, batting average and total bases. Bowdren directs the team both vocally and by example, keeping her teammates energized on the field both from second base and behind the plate. Last season, Bowdren was one of the most efficient hitters in the nation, putting together a 12-game hitting streak while remaining the sixth-toughest hitter to strike out in the country.

Another key contributor will be senior third baseman Karli Johnson. Johnson led the team in in slugging percentage, runs batted in and home runs. Splitting her time last season between first base and designated hitter, Johnson received a big boost in playing time between 2012 and 2013, starting in six times as many games. She certainly proved she earned the field time, with her five home runs, 24 RBIs and .490 slugging percentage all becoming team-bests.

Even with the returning talent, Virginia will rely on its new players to produce from the very first game. Miller is throwing his five freshmen immediately into action and expects them to play a significant part this season.

“It’s a smaller team, so they will have to step up right now,” Miller said. “They are going to be everyday starters, so they have to mature a lot faster.”

With Mitchell’s departure, Chapdelaine is charged with replacing one of the greatest pitchers in Virginia history. Chapdelaine started 16 games for the Cavaliers last season and made relief appearances in five other contests. The right hander accrued a 5-10 record with a 4.85 earned run average in only 92.1 innings as a freshman. Chapdelaine knows she has a tall task ahead of her, and realizes she must step up and pitch better in 2014.

“I feel like I can fill that role [as a No. 1 starter],” Chapdelaine said. “I know that I can go out every day and give 110 percent. Being on the mound, it is comforting to know that I have 11 other girls behind me.”

Another grueling season will await Virginia in the coming months. The Cavaliers compete in three weekend tournaments before jumping into ACC action on the road against NC State March 1. Conference play will be challenging yet again. Off the ACC squads, currently only No. 12 Florida State is ranked, but NC State, Virginia Tech, Notre Dame, Syracuse and North Carolina all received votes in the last poll.

Still, Miller said if the Cavaliers can expand their offensive production the way he wants them to, their season is looking bright.

“We are absolutely killing the ball right now,” Miller said. “Obviously there is a difference between batting practice and live pitching, but we are committed to hitting.”