Palmer Park

UVa media relationsPalmer Park, the new home of the Virginia softball program, is set to host its first game next month.

Virginia’s new softball stadium, Palmer Park, opens this season.

A new stadium and facility brings with it excitement about the game day atmosphere and potential recruiting benefits. To the outside world, the new facility ushers in what fans hope is an improved era of UVa softball.

Inside the program, the new facility generates excitement for a different reason: logistics. From improved parking to reduced commutes to a team lounge, the new facility makes life easier for the Cavaliers.

“Most people will talk about recruiting first, but for us, the efficiency of our day-to-day operations, it completely changes the game for us,” Virginia head coach Joanna Hardin said. “Right now, we operate out of four different sites, and you have to drive and park at all four of them.”

Simple tasks, such as arriving to practice on time, become an issue for players. When it rains heavily during practice, Hardin often shuts down the practice. By the time it takes to pack up equipment and drive over to the indoor football facility, the allotted practice time is over.

“We knew once everything was in one spot, it was going to change our lives,” Hardin said. “It’s been very challenging and very discombobulating to be so spread apart.”

The new facility, which includes a player development center, locker room, team lounge and training room, gives the Cavaliers a chance to train, compete and relax in one central location.

“There’s a lot of time that’s just wasted because you’re just driving, parking and walking to different locations,” Hardin said of the current setup. “For us, it puts us in one spot. It allows us to maximize our practice time, and it’s going to give our athletes so much time back that they don’t even realize they’re losing.”

It’s time the Cavaliers need to maximize.

The program’s last winning season came in 2012, when the Cavaliers went 26-25. The last winning record in ACC play came in 2010, when Virginia went 34-23 overall and 13-7 in the ACC. That’s the last time UVa made the NCAA Tournament.

Softball in Virginia is strong. Just last season, Longwood, James Madison and Virginia Tech all made the NCAA Tournament.

The Cavaliers find themselves falling behind.

With nearly every athletic program at Virginia finding success on the national stage, the softball program hopes the new facility is the start to a period of prolonged success.

On the field, that starts with steady improvement. Entering Hardin’s fourth season at the helm, the Cavaliers are 51-104, but they’ve shown signs of growth. They’ve qualified for the conference tournament in two of Hardin’s three seasons, and they finished with a winning record (10-9) at home last season for the first time since 2012.

This year’s team wants to take another step forward.

“Last year, we made it to the ACC Tournament, and that’s definitely a given goal for this year,” junior outfielder Kate Covington said. “I’d like to see us make it to the ACC Championship. I just want to be competitive at the end of the season.”

Virginia’s last win in the ACC Tournament came in 2011. To advance through the single-elimination tournament, the Cavaliers need to play their best softball late in the season.

Achieving those goals will certainly be a challenge for the Cavaliers, especially with its current roster makeup. Transfer Riley Wilkinson, who comes to the team from Princeton, is the team’s lone senior. That’s a good sign for the team’s future, but a lack of seniors puts pressure on younger players to step into leadership roles.

The inexperienced Cavaliers open the season Friday at Charlotte, and they won’t play at Palmer Park until March 3 when JMU comes to town to open the new park.

On one hand, there are challenges looming this season, and with the new facility opening this year, there could easily be increased nervousness surrounding the anticipation of this season.

On the other hand, Virginia opens an impressive new facility with a team that only has one senior. It’s easy to see why optimism and hope are high inside the Cavaliers’ softball program.

“There’s definitely an added pressure with the new stadium,” sophomore pitcher Aly Rayle said. “But it’s definitely a gift, so we’re trying to flip that mindset and be grateful for it rather than seeing it as a pressure.”

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