When the Virginia Softball team takes to the field Tuesday afternoon against the visiting Dukes of JMU, they’ll be stepping foot onto their new field for a game for the first time. Palmer Park has a “soft” open against James Madison before a dedication and ribbon cutting ceremony for the weekend series against Virginia Tech starting Friday, March 6.
It’s been a long time coming for head coach Joanna Hardin and the team. Palmer Park, which is named after former Cavalier Softball pitcher Lisa Palmer (1986-89), broke ground on October 13, 2018. Seventeen-or-so months later, the dream of a top-notch facility is a reality.
Palmer and her mother, Fran, provided the lead gift for the project.
Previously, the Cavaliers had to play at The Park, a field woefully devoid of support staff and facilities located up by the Darden School of Business and the Judge Advocate General School (military lawyer training). Players and coaches had to drive to and from practice, drive to lift, drive to facilities to shower and get back to class, and drive to meet with trainers. Now, it’s all centrally located.
“It’s huge. It’s honestly a game changer,” third year outfielder Kate Covington said in the sparkling new locker room. “Just the efficiency throughout the day being all in one place [is] big for the unity of our program, too. We’ve just been so used to running around and rushing from different location to different location, so just having our locker room be four steps from the field is huge for time and headspace.”
The new facility, located at the corner of Massie and Copeley roads, is perfectly nestled into the area that houses Davenport Field, Klöckner Stadium, and Lannigan Field. From the bleachers, fans can see the top of the Rotunda and the football practice facility. If you’re along the first base line or sitting on the berm that spans the outfield, you can look over to see John Paul Jones Arena.
Hardin said the location — and even positioning of the field — were all the result of Athletic Director Carla Williams. Before Palmer Park, the Softball team felt a little out of touch within the athletic department and were light years behind the competition in terms of facilities. Now, the Cavaliers boast one of the top stadiums in the conference.
Palmer Park can seat 524 in the lower bowl, with seating available on the outfield berm and standing room in the concourse. Preseason, Hardin and the athletic department hoped to sell 40 season tickets. They’ve already sold 132 and counting. There’s an indoor batting cage, pitching lane, and an in-house training room complete with hot and cold hydrotherapy tubs. A team room features lounge space for the team and snacks approved by the UVA Sports Nutrition department.
The locker room has space for travel bags, uniforms, and personal items, and the meeting/video area allows the team to gather for game-planning or study. Even the team’s bathroom is gorgeous. As expected, the team seeing the facility for the first time was a big day for everyone.
“When they walked through the facility for the first time, it was one of the highlights of my coaching career,” Hardin said. “It was just pure joy and overwhelmed excitement. It was like kids on Christmas Day.”
“The first time we walked in it was honestly jaw dropping,” catcher Ashley Jennings said with a smile. “I didn’t have any words, I was crying. I was freaking out.”
Players all had a different favorite part about the new facility. Covington had a hard time picking just one aspect, saying, “I think that the Performance Center is really cool just having the indoor batting cages. We never really had a space like that. I just think it’s going to be huge and everyone is going to want to get extra work in. On a day to day basis, just the locker room and the team space and lounges are going to be huge.”
Second year Arizona Ritchie had a pretty straightforward, reasonable response. “Honestly the field is amazing,” Ritchie stated. “I’m an infielder, so the first thing I did was feel the dirt, and it’s a soft. It’s not rock hard. It’s amazing.”
The Hoos have played 16 games already this season, holding onto an 8-8 record. Virginia’s players are more than ready to hit their home field, but know that there’s going to be a lot of emotion to balance, too. “We’ve definitely talked a lot about interference and not letting outside interference get into our game and our mental headspace during the games and during practices,” pitcher Aly Rayle said. “We’ve had to make a conscious effort and block all that out and focus on what we need to focus on.”
The excitement level is high, and this should be a major turning point for the Virginia Softball program as a whole.
“It [the new facility] inspires us to continue working, and it also makes us feel like we’re a valuable part of what’s been going on,” Hardin said of her program’s place among the athletic department. “I think we’ve always known that, but now you really get that sense. You feel that, and you can see how [the players] walk around. Their shoulders are back. Their heads are up. There’s a pride about our facility and where we are, and it’s really exciting. It’s really cool to see.”
Virginia and JMU get underway at 4pm at Palmer Park, and the game will be broadcast on ACCNX.