2022 NISC bid a sign Cavaliers ready for more ACC notice
By Kyle Koso
The 2022 season has looked familiar to the Virginia softball program in many respects, mainly in how the competition in the ACC is next to unrelenting, and the Cavaliers have had to scuffle hard to earn their place.
But some fresh light is shining through as the team secured a 27-24 overall record, its first above .500 since 2012. The resume was sturdy enough to earn the No. 1 seed for the 2022 NISC, and the Cavaliers will start the push for this national title Sunday against Bowling Green at the TC Colorado Field.
Head coach Joanna Hardin is six years into her run at UVA, barely into her 30’s when she took the job. After practice Friday, she talked about the temperament mix the program balances these days, trying to work calmly toward goals but also knowing it may be time to jump forward in expectations.
“The last five years have been a lot about patience - there’s a chapter out of the book “Chop Wood, Carry Water’ that talks about bamboo. Even when you plant and care for bamboo, it takes five years for the roots to sprout and to actually start growing,” said Hardin, whose team gave national powerhouse Florida State a scare in the first round of the ACC Tournament before falling short, 5-3. “When you build something that is sustainable and long-lasting, that takes a lot of time. We live in a world where we want results now, and that’s the world of athletics and coaching. I feel like we’ve got the roots and foundation, and we are where I projected us to be.
“But we aren’t ‘there’ wherever ‘there’ is — but with a young roster and the mentality of the athletes we’ve recruited who are competitive and have come from winning programs, it’s (promising). Past teams have worked hard to build this, and this team has reaped the benefits of what’s been happening under the surface. There were days for me personally and for a lot of our team where you question if it’s worth it. With the transfer portal right there, the temptation to think the grass will be greener somewhere else … it’s so rewarding to have these young women and a coaching staff be true and stick with you with the vision.”
What jumps out about Virginia is the cluster of young players who are productive in the moment and projecting an energy that makes it feel like much more can happen. Sarah Coon was named to the league’s all-freshman team after hitting .280 with six home runs; sophomore Leah Boggs hit .293 to lead the team, and redshirt freshman Lauren VanAssche closed at .273. All of them were effective base stealers as well.
In the circle, three sophomores got important starts through the year in Mikayla Houge, Savanah Henley and Madison Harris.
“You can think about the future with these athletes — our sophomores were fine last year, but they’ve really developed themselves this year,” Hardin said. “There’s a lot of youth, and it’s exciting to see them take ownership and play significant roles. It’s gratifying to see the recruits come in and contribute the way we projected them to; the next couple classes should be more of the same.”
The typical route for a pitching staff is to have one or two starters lead the way in terms of innings pitched — Virginia had seven different players start games this season, and no one topped 100 innings. It might not always be this way, as Hardin says the window is there for someone to emerge as an anchor, but for now the mix of options is stirring up trouble for opponents.
“We’ve pitched by committee the last couple years. Injuries played into a bit, it’s not like was our philosophy or anything we recruited to … we ride the hot hand, and then there are matchups,” she said. “We pay a lot of attention to the scouting of our opponents, and we have pitchers that throw down, some that throw up in zone, good changeups … opportunities will go to what matches up the best and then we back up the started with who complements her really well.
“We like to give as many different looks as possible. That opportunity is there (for a rotation anchor). We always tell the team, stay ready and stay hungry, never know when that opportunity will present itself.”
Indeed, Molly Grube didn’t even throw for Virginia for a chunk of the early season, yet she notched the win April 15 against No. 2 Virginia Tech with 6 2/3 stellar innings.
Virginia will try to press forward, get a few more concrete accomplishments in the backpack while giving the roster the right amount of oxygen to keep growing as the challenges got as well.
“This tournament is so integral in our growth and development as a program,” Hardin added. “It’s the first postseason they’ve ever experienced, many have just had one ACC tournament — the mindset you need to play late, practice on different fields, pitching and practicing deeper into May, you’ve got to experience it for it to become normal. We are grateful that our administration is so supportive and given us this opportunity, as it elevates expectations in our program. As a young team, it helps set the standard, and this can become the norm now.”