Virginia wants to be the top college softball program in the commonwealth. That lofty goal requires significant work for the Cavaliers, who went 15-33 in 2021 and haven’t had a winning season since going 26-25 in 2012.
“Our record was disappointing,” head coach Joanna Hardin said. “I think we felt like we underachieved for the talent and who we have on the team.”
The subpar season sent Hardin, who received a contract extension after the season, back to the drawing board.
“Any time you have a season like that, as the head coach and as the leader of the program I had to step back after the season and evaluate and evaluate myself and evaluate my leadership and where things were going wrong,” Hardin said.
Hardin decided her organization was due for a new structure. The coach with a pitching background decided she needed to better see the big picture of her team.
She brought in Mike Roberts, a decorated coach who spent the last three seasons leading Louisiana’s pitching staff. He helped lead Oregon and Washington to the College World Series during stints as the pitching coach, and he’s hopeful to find success with another Power Five program.
“I am honored to join coach Joanna Hardin and the entire UVa softball family,” Roberts said in a July statement. “I’m excited to get to the University of Virginia and get to work.”
With Roberts as the pitching coach, Hardin can focus on better leading the entire group. It also gives her time to get to know non-pitchers on a more personal level, something she’s excited about entering 2021-22. She’ll still have input on the pitching staff, but she won’t need to spend the majority of her time in the bullpen working with the pitchers.
“It allows me to really prioritize the relationships with my players and our team,” Hardin said.
Virginia returns a roster capable of the sizeable turnaround it craves. UVa has 10 seniors and seven juniors. The group is experienced, but the veterans aren’t guaranteed playing time on a roster with young talent.
The team’s sophomore class is stacked.
Abby Weaver hit a team-best .328 and started 20 games as a freshman. She hit a pair of home runs and walked 11 times, compared to eight strikeouts. Leah Boggs earned 25 starts, hitting .254 and drawing 10 walks.
Pitchers Mikayla Houge and Madison Harris showed promise in their first collegiate seasons. They combined for five saves, and Houge looked the part of a capable starter with high upside. She started 20 games, posting an ERA of 3.42. Her 5-11 record doesn’t jump off the page, but there’s hope that Houge and Harris will take a step forward in their second seasons, especially with a more traditional fall.
UVa’s incoming freshman class features six players, and four of them are top-50 recruits, according to Extra Inning Softball. The class was ranked 31st nationally and the four top-50 recruits ties UVa for the most top-50 signees among ACC schools. The Cavaliers also have redshirt freshman Lauren Vanassche, a top-100 recruit who missed the 2021 season due to injury.
The talent on the roster grows each season for UVa.
Hardin credits the team’s new facility, Palmer Park, for improved recruiting metrics. The university offers plenty of positives academically and athletically, and the team’s stadium now puts it on par or above Power Five peers.
Palmer Park helps UVa’s chances of climbing to the top of collegiate softball in Virginia. It won’t be easy to unseat programs like James Madison, which played in the College World Series this spring, and Virginia Tech, which made a super regional. Even Liberty’s program consistently racks up more victories than UVa.
The Cavaliers, however, have the resources to compete.
“The competitiveness of the schools in state, I love it because I think it develops state rivalries,” Hardin said. “Now that we have our facility and we have some other key components to our program in place, it’s giving us a competitive advantage I think in recruiting.”
In the short term, UVa hopes its revamped coaching staff leads to improved results in 2022. In the long term, UVa thinks it can attract the top players in a talent-rich state, eventually taking the program from ACC mediocrity to national relevance.
“All the best players in our state should have a look at Virginia, that’s my belief, and if we can win our state in recruiting, I think it sets us up really well,” Hardin said.