With the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic over the past months, many people and organizations have faced brutal repercussions, and sports teams are no exception. Thanks to the cancellation of NCAA winter and spring championships, senior members of teams nationwide were forced to face the fact that they had played in the final games and participated in the last practices of their collegiate careers without even knowing it. Despite a young squad this year, Virginia softball will grapple with the loss of graduate student pitcher Riley Wilkinson, who was forced to end her last softball season ever early.
Amid preparation for competition against North Carolina, the University suspended all athletic activities indefinitely, and shortly after, news about the NCAA’s cancellation of championship events broke. Wilkinson said that she still remembers the exact moment she found out.
“It was pretty devastating,” Wilkinson said. “I still remember exactly what the day looked like because we had gone to lift that morning, we had practice and then so much news was flying in.”
The rapidly changing future of sports left many dazed — for the softball team, it was just three hours after the team’s scouting report meeting for North Carolina that they learned about the suspension of all University-affiliated athletics activities.
“The finality of that decision and how abruptly it came was really heartbreaking,” Coach Joanna Hardin said. “I think for all of us as a team, it hurt even more knowing that [Wilkinson] would not be returning.”
Wilkinson, who had a distinguished playing career at Princeton before she came to the University for graduate school this year, played in six games for the Cavaliers in her season on the team. Over the span of the short-lived season, Wilkinson pitched for more than 14 innings recording an impressive eight strikeouts with an ERA of 2.86.
“It was incredible,” Wilkinson said of the past season. “I say it to the team all the time that being with them for this year, even if it was shortened, was the coolest thing that I will ever get to do.”
Just 22 games into the 2020 season, the Virginia softball team appeared to be headed for significant improvement. Not only was the team on track for a better overall record than previous seasons, but they had played the first games in the brand new Palmer Park stadium.
The first game in the new facility took place March 3 against James Madison in what was a momentous occasion for both the team and Wilkinson — for her, it was one of her favorite memories from the season.
“That was pretty insane and seeing the tweets afterwards about the attendance at the home opener, that was really a moving experience and something I will never forget,” Wilkinson said.
At Princeton, Wilkinson played in 70 games over the course of three seasons — and along with helping the Tigers to the 2017 Ivy League title, Wilkinson set a school record with four saves as a freshman and set a Princeton career record with nine saves. As a result, with her transfer, Wilkinson brought bountiful experience to the team, which translated into veteran leadership.
“[Wilkinson] had a huge impact on the culture of our team and obviously in the circle of pitching for us,” Hardin said. “She did a great job.”
Along with her stellar performance on the field, Wilkinson contributed to the team by building relationships with teammates and keeping the team high-spirited.
“Her experience and maturity will make it very hard to replace her,” Hardin said. “Everything from tutoring the first years in music, bio and stat to creating bullpen games and keeping the bullpen lighthearted and fun.”
In a year where the softball team was very young with many new faces and players returning with only a year of playing experience, Wilkinson provided her teammates with a positive example both on and off the field. Her leadership will surely have a beneficial impact on young members of the team going forward.
“She is an ultimate competitor and wanted the ball anytime that she could get it,” Hardin said. “I think she was a great example for our young pitchers to look up to in terms of her grit and resilience on the field and her work ethic.”
The unprecedented impact that COVID-19 has had on daily life include a large effect on athletics programs, virtually stopping the world of sports. Wilkinson noted that particularly on the collegiate level, members of sports teams can certainly use this as a learning moment.
“I think that for any athlete now, we have a unique perspective that most people did not have prior to COVID-19,” Wilkinson said. “I hope that everybody is able to take this experience and learn from that and appreciate those moments that you have, the good [and] the bad.”
The pandemic has left many in difficult situations, but responding to the unforeseen event will be critical for all individuals.
“Oftentimes, we do not get to control a lot of the things that happen to us in our lives and nobody would’ve thought we would be in this position,” Hardin said. “But how we choose to respond and choose our perspective is going to be the difference for [Wilkinson] and how she moves forward.”
Wilkinson will be continuing her education at the University of Louisville School of Medicine, a dream of hers.
“I do not get to take advantage of an extra year of eligibility, but it is for the best,” Wilkinson said. “It has always been the plan and always been my dream to go to medical school, and that’s where I will be heading.”
With the exception of Wilkinson, Virginia Softball anticipates the return of the rest of the squad next season. Having shown definite improvement in the 2020 season, the Cavaliers are determined to maintain an upward trend as they return next season. Many players will also have increased experience under their belts providing for more leadership in the bullpen and more maturity on the field.
“Next steps for us look like maturity, constant pursuit of development and getting more W’s on the board,” Hardin said. “I think that’ll be an after-effect of the work they are doing right now.”