The Virginia softball team heads west this weekend for the Mary Nutter Classic in Cathedral City, Calif. The lineup for the Cavaliers includes Brigham Young, Pacific, Oregon State, Fresno State and No. 6 Oregon in their final tournament of the year.
Last weekend’s Coastal Carolina Tournament was not kind to Virginia (1-7). In three games against Purdue, Coastal Carolina and Towson, the Cavaliers were outscored 29-6 and went 0-3 with two losses coming via the slaughter rule.
Freshman infielder Madison Labshere’s emergence at the plate was the sole bright moment in an otherwise dismal weekend. Labshere collected six hits, including a four-hit performance against Towson, and was selected to the All-Tournament team. After her hot weekend, her batting average skyrocketed from .071 to .318.
Labshere credits her strong three games to a bit of mental rejuvenation.
“I was more relaxed,” she said. “I brought with me a new mindset, and I hope it will continue to carry over.”
A difficult slate of games awaits the Cavaliers. Virginia opens the tournament with a game against BYU (4-6). The Cougars have a potent offense which has put up double-digit run totals in four games. Freshman outfielder McKenzie St. Clair is acting as BYU’s catalyst, hitting .500 with two home runs and 10 runs batted in the young season.
Next on the docket is Pacific (2-4). Although the Tigers are off to a slow start, the team came within two runs of beating then-No.14 Stanford on the road.
Virginia’s third opponent has also had a rough start to 2014, with the Beavers (3-8) riding a five-game losing streak into the Mary Nutter Classic. Sophomore Christie Langlois is Oregon State’s best hitter, with her stats closely mirroring those of Virginia senior Marcy Bowdren.
The Cavaliers’ final two games pit them against arguably the best two teams in the field, as Virginia battles Fresno State (8-2) and the Ducks (9-1) Saturday afternoon. The Bulldogs have the ability to put up big numbers on the scoreboard, giving Oregon a scare in the season’s first week but ultimately falling 10-9.
The Ducks, Virginia coach Blake Miller’s former team, have also opened the season strong. After losing their first game to California Polytechnic, Oregon has rallied off nine consecutive wins and remains a deadly presence at the plate — averaging 7.8 runs per contest.
All this offensive firepower could lead to another frustrating weekend for sophomore pitcher Aimee Chapdelaine. Last weekend, Chapdelaine was rocked for 22 runs, 12 earned in only eight innings of work. For the season, she holds a 1-7 record with an 8.28 earned run average.
Chapdelaine has often fallen behind in the count this season — she walks on average one batter per inning and has a .348 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
“We have to throw strikes and get ahead of batters,” Miller said. “She’s being too fine, and she needs to start challenging batters. When we start getting ahead of batters we will be fine.”
Until the team’s offensive production picks up, Chapdelaine would need to flirt with a shutout to have a realistic shot at coming out on top. Miller’s promise of a high pressure and potent offense has not yet come to fruition, with Virginia posting just 18 runs through eight games this season, with six of those coming in one inning against North Carolina Central.
The Cavaliers are showing signs they may be awakening at the plate, however. Bowdren continues her momentum, hitting .438 and slugging 1.000, while Labshere found her on-switch in South Carolina. Senior outfielder Stephanie Harris collected three hits, including two home runs, after only hitting twice in the first five games.
Miller believes other under-performing players may be due to break their collective slump.
“Half the team is not in rhythm, and the other half is starting to get into rhythm,” Miller said. “The big thing is confidence. When they start getting in rhythm and see things progress from practice to the field, things will turn around.”
The Mary Nutter Classic is the final action for Virginia before conference play. The results of this tournament will effectively frame the Cavaliers’ identity as they begin ACC competition.
“This tournament is going to be really big,” Labshere said. “It is going to help us lead into conference play and the high level of competition that we will see.”