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Virginia softball eliminated from NCAA Tournament in final round of Knoxville Regional

No. 3 Tennessee defeated the Cavaliers for the second time in two days Sunday

<p>Freshman utility player Macee Eaton rounds the bases Friday after hitting a two-run home run in the fifth inning.</p>

Freshman utility player Macee Eaton rounds the bases Friday after hitting a two-run home run in the fifth inning.

Following a victory against Miami (Ohio) late Saturday night that kept Virginia softball’s season alive, the team was shut out 6-0 by Tennessee Sunday afternoon. The No. 3 Volunteers (43-10, 19-5 SEC) rode on dominant pitching through the NKCA  Regional, which they hosted in Knoxville, Tenn. Tennessee allowed no runs through three games, including two shutouts against the Cavaliers (34-1209, 15-9 ACC). Virginia’s appearance in the Regionals marked its first NCAA Tournament bid since 2010 — the Cavaliers have yet to reach the Super Regionals. Leading up to Sunday’s affair, Virginia defeated the RedHawks (49-9, 26-1 MAC) Friday to open regional play, but a defeat at the hands of the Volunteers Saturday afternoon pitted the Cavaliers against Miami once again that same evening. Virginia prevailed, culminating in Sunday’s rematch against Tennessee in the final round of the Knoxville Regional. 

Game 1 — Virginia 7, Miami 0

Virginia’s dominant pitching Friday faced the intimidating task of keeping the RedHawks’ high-powered offense in check — Miami led all NCAA Division I programs in both runs and home runs per game. Sophomore pitcher Eden Bigham, a First-Team All-ACC selection, took the circle for the Cavaliers and kept the game scoreless entering the bottom half of the first. It was the embattled Virginia offense that struck first as sophomore infielder Jade Hylton — another First-Team All-ACC selection — greeted freshman pitcher Madilyn Reeves with a leadoff double, putting a runner in scoring position early. A single and a walk advanced Hylton to third base for freshman utility player Macee Eaton, who lifted a sacrifice fly to drive in a run for the Cavaliers.

Another painless frame from Bigham brought up the Virginia bats in the second. Junior utility player Sarah Coon led off the inning with a walk, followed by a sacrifice bunt and another walk. With two outs and runners on first and second, it was Hylton who came through once again, slapping a single through the left side to score Coon. The throw to home plate was mishandled, and heads-up baserunning from sophomore outfielder Kelsey Hackett allowed her to score, giving the Cavaliers a three-run lead. 

The RedHawks continued to struggle against Bigham, who allowed Miami’s first hit of the game in the third, which was promptly erased by a double play. Virginia extended its lead in the fifth as Eaton blasted a two-run home run, just her second of the season. Hylton tacked on two more in the sixth with another home run, giving the Cavaliers a seven-run lead. Overall, Bigham dismantled the RedHawks, throwing 10 shutout innings and allowing just two hits. Virginia advanced to the winner’s bracket, with a matching swith the Volunteers looming the next day.

Game 2 — Virginia 0, Tennessee 12

Tennessee was a daunting opponent — the Volunteers quickly blasted back-to-back home runs off of senior pitcher Mikayla Houge to open the game. The run parade didnot stop there, as Tennessee tacked on five more runs in the second inning, four in the third and one in the fourth. Virginia brought in freshman pitcher Courtney Layne to relieve Houge halfway through the second inning and reinstated Houge in the fourth, but nobody could stop the Volunteers. Graduate pitcher Payton Gottshall — the fifth overall pick in the 2024 Athletes Unlimited Pro Softball College Draft — had the Cavaliers off-balance all game, allowing just three hits and no runs through five innings. After Virginia failed to score in the top half of the fifth inning, the NCAA Mercy Rule took effect, and Tennessee won Saturday’s matchup 12-0. The Cavaliers awaited the outcome of the next game between Miami and Dayton, the first elimination game of the Knoxville Regional.

Game 3 — Virginia 6, Miami 0

After a long weather delay, the RedHawks defeated Dayton Saturday evening, setting up a late-night rematch against the Cavaliers. Bigham once again took the circle for Virginia, while Miami started sixth-year pitcher Addy Jarvis, the Redhawks’ ERA leader. Jarvis seemed to have more success than Reeves initially, matching Bigham with two scoreless frames to start the game. But Hylton started the scoring in the third with a solo home run, giving the Cavaliers a one-run lead that they would not relinquish. 

Miami failed to record a hit through the first five innings as Bigham notched xki im strikeouts and induced only soft contact. Virginia extended its lead in the fifth inning after an error and a single put two runners on base. Senior outfielder Abby Weaver knocked a single to drive in Hylton from second and advance freshman infielder Bella Cabral into scoring position. With two runners on base, junior infielder Shelby Barbee stepped up for the Cavaliers, driving a three run blast to left field and extending Virginia’s lead to five runs. 

In the sixth inning, the Cavaliers added another run and Bigham finally lost her no-hit bid — still, she unthinkably topped her performance from the team’s opening game, pitching sxi shutout, one-hit innings to send Virginia to the final round of the Knoxville Regional Sunday afternoon. 

Game 4 — Virginia 0, Tennessee 6

The Cavaliers now faced the tall task of winning two straight games against Tennessee. On short rest, Bigham once again took the circle against the Volunteers — her third start in three days. Sophomore pitcher Karlyn Pickens started the game for Tennessee. 

Bigham found herself in trouble early against the Volunteers’ imposing lineup. A walk issued to graduate outfielder Kiki Milloy and a hit-by-pitch put two runners on base, and a wild pitch advanced the runners to second and third. After notching a strikeout for the inning’s second out, Bigham allowed a single to senior outfielder Rylie West, putting Tennessee up by two. Bigham once again ran into turbulence in the third, as an RBI single and a subsequent two-run double added three more runs to Tennessee’s lead. Bigham relinquished the circle to senior pitcher Madison Harris, who escaped the inning with no further damage. Despite a rough outing, Bigham’s efforts earlier in the weekend singlehandedly propelled Virginia to the final round of the Regional, as she tossed a combined 16.1 innings — 15 of them scoreless — in just three days. 

Harris stabilized the circle for the Cavaliers, allowing just one more run through 4.2 innings of work following Bigham’s departure. Still, a six-run deficit proved to be too tall a mountain for Virginia’s offense to scale. Pickens carved through the Cavaliers, who could only muster two hits. All told, Pickens hurled seven shutout innings to send Tennessee, a bona fide National Championship contender, to the Super Regionals. 

Despite a rough finish, Virginia has much to be proud of. The Cavaliers won seven of eight ACC series in 2024 and reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010. They also won two Knoxville Regional games against a highly-touted offense and advanced to the final, notching valuable playoff experience for a young team. Coach Joanna Hardin emphasized the Cavaliers’ accomplishments in the wake of a successful 2024 campaign. 

“I have tons of pride and am grateful for the opportunities to coach this senior class who committed six years ago with a dream to be here today and no reason to believe it was possible, yet here we are,” Hardin said. “I’m really proud of them, the team and my staff. It’s been a hike to get here, but here we are.”

Virginia now looks ahead to 2025 — the Cavaliers will return significant production from 2024 and will aim to improve upon a milestone season with continued ACC success and a return to the NCAA Tournament. 


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