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Virginia softball program knows it has a home in Palmer Park when it comes back

Virginia softball program knows it has a home in Palmer Park when it comes back

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Virginia players walk off the field during the home opener against James Madison at the new Palmer Park.

The team’s emotions were just leveling out.

After the emotional high of walking into its new facility at Palmer Park, the Virginia softball team went through the anxiety and nerves of playing in front of a packed house. Then came the four-game home losing streak in which the Cavaliers were outscored 27-3. They failed to score in three of those games.

Finally, UVa picked up its first win in Palmer Park and followed a 2-1 win over Bucknell up with another 2-1 victory in the second game of a doubleheader.

Unfortunately, another emotional low hit the program when the Cavaliers learned their wins over Bucknell would be the last time they would play during the 2020 season. The spread of COVID-19 led to the cancellation of spring sport activity, which meant after years of waiting for the new facility, the program had to wait a bit longer to fully experience all of Palmer Park for an entire season.

“It’s hard to come to terms with how incomplete it feels,” junior Kate Covington said.

The UVa softball family swallowed the news and tried to process it.

For Virginia head coach Joanna Hardin, losing the opportunity to finish the season in the park stung, but it was losing quality time with the team during the most exciting part of the year that hurt the most.

“It probably hit me harder when the NCAA put out their release,” Hardin said. “Then you just knew. Kids are starting to make arrangements to go home, and I probably won’t see a lot of them until either summer school if summer school happens or really August. It’s tough when this has been your life every day and you see these kids more than your family. They are your family.”

Palmer Park’s setup made quality time easier to come by. Instead of the previous setup, where players and coaches had to travel to the field and then hop in their cars and head to other parts of grounds for treatment and lifting, much of the work could be done in one central location. That allowed significantly more daily interaction between players and coaches.

“We have so much more informal time to just build relationships with them and engage and they could come in,” Hardin said. “We had players who would just come in and sit down and just chat about life, not even softball and so that is definitely the hardest part.”

While the season ends, the Cavaliers had just one senior. Even with eligibility relief, pitcher Riley Wilkinson is headed to Louisville for medical school. Her departure means the Cavaliers return all but one player from this season’s roster.

The end of the season came suddenly. The Cavaliers went from the high of opening a beautiful new facility to the low of seeing their season end. It was an emotional few weeks for the program.

The news comes as a shock, but Virginia is keeping the cancellation in perspective. Palmer Park isn’t going anywhere, and one day, softball will return.

“It was just abrupt,” Hardin said. “I don’t know if taken away is the way to say it, but it felt abrupt. It was fast, but we know that we have a home and the girls have a home to come back to when we come back, whenever that is, and we’re still really grateful for that.”

Hardin spent time in the days after the announcement tying up loose ends at the stadium and using the press box as a quiet office space. The location allowed her to socially distance while working in the facility.

For the immediate future, a silent Palmer Park will be the norm.

One day in the future, the fans, players and coaches will return.

As she came up to the park one day, Hardin heard the ping of the bat coming from a normally silent park. She wasn’t hallucinating.

Hardin arrived at the park and saw a construction worker hitting on the field. One of the people who helped build the field noted the absence of people in a facility designed to shed more light on the UVa softball program.

“He’s like, ‘Yeah, it’s empty,’” Hardin said. “‘It’s like a ghost town without you guys.’ That was another reminder to me that, man, this is so much bigger. Our program and the impact is just way bigger than 60 feet and turn left.”

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