UVA’s softball team ready to make new memories in Palmer Park debut

By Jerry Ratcliffe

It’ll be 220 feet from home plate to the fence in straightaway center field; which Wahoo will be the first to knock one out at the new Palmer Park? (Photos by Jerry Ratcliffe)

Kate Covington made sure to take time and remember.

It was Virginia’s last practice at The Park, the softball program’s home for the past quarter-century, Covington’s last time in the hidden facility that no one seemed to know or care about. While most were ready to get the heck out of the place, Covington lingered and remembered.

“I just took a few minutes in center field, in my little worn-out spot, just to think about how I’ve grown a lot as a person and a player on that field, and was super grateful for the experience that we had there,” Covington said Monday afternoon.

The Cavaliers’ junior outfielder from McLean was standing smack in the middle of UVA softball program’s brand-new Palmer Park, which will be dedicated at 1:45 p.m. on Tuesday, with Virginia hosting JMU at 4 p.m., ushering in a new era for the sport.

Covington was glad she got to experience the former softball field. She believes that moving from there to Palmer Park — former Virginia pitcher Lisa Palmer and her mother, Fran, provided the lead gift for the facility — made it a more humbling moment. While the old place left a lot to be desired, it was full of program history. The new place is a work of art, crammed onto the corner of Massie and Copeley, rivaling Clemson’s new stadium as the best two softball facilities in the ACC.

The Park may be history, and Covington hopes to add new memories at Palmer Park, but she’ll never forget the old joint, a place she and her teammates always had to supply directions to for curious friends. That’s why she took time last week to say farewell.

“I remember standing there and running through different games, different practices, different memories,” Covington said. “I’m a super nostalgic person. To think that we’re never going back and make the walk from the locker room to the Park again …”

She didn’t finish her thought. She didn’t need to.

Palmer Park was long in the making in terms of finally getting the facility approved and situated on Grounds. The reality of making it come true via construction didn’t take so long. Ground was broken in October of 2018.

“We started initially talking about the stadium my first year,” said UVA coach Joanna Hardin. “Standing here now in my fourth year, knowing this has been a three-and-a-half-year discussion, it’s very surreal.

“It hasn’t hit me that we’re playing tomorrow. Ten years of discussion. Recruits I coached that have graduated were told on their recruiting visits that the stadium was coming. It became kind of like, ‘Yeah, we’ll believe it when we see it.’”

The views of the stadium and from the stadium have a ‘wow’ factor, with the top of the Rotunda and Carter’s Mountain in the background from the press box. Other UVA facilities are part of the panorama.

While the team — 8-8 headed into Tuesday’s game against the 9-4 Dukes — has practiced in Palmer Park to get acclimated, the transition is going to take a little time for the players and coaches.

“My whole pregame routine is going to be different,” Hardin cracked. “I’ll figure it out. There’s a lot of new and unknown. Even good change is a change. We’re just developing our new normals.”

Palmer Park has everything that the program could ask for:

  • A 60’x60’ indoor player development center featuring batting cages, a pitching lane and moveable nets to create an open infield.
  • A dedicated home locker room, including showers and restrooms.
  • A team room featuring a lounge, kitchenette and snacks serviced by UVA Sports Nutrition.
  • A meeting/video area and coaches’ conference room.
  • An athletic training room featuring hot and cold hydrotherarpy tubs, two training tables, a taping table and mobility units.
  • A seating capacity of 524 in the bowl with additional seating on the outfield berm and right-field hillside.
  • State-of-the-art Daktronics video board.
  • Restrooms, concession stand and team shop.
  • A press box with dedicated space for TV broadcasts, radio and print media.
  • Dimensions of 210-feet down the lines and 220-feet to center.

The facility also features LED lighting that is brighter than conventional stadium lighting, and more energy-efficient.

When the team returned from a road game more than a week ago and was given a preliminary tour of their new home, it was quite a moment.

“We were absolutely overwhelmed with emotion,” said sophomore pitcher-outfielder Aly Rayle of Herndon. “Walking in here meant so much to our program, to have everything in one place. It is really going to be transformative for our program.”

As Rayle pointed out, prior to Palmer Park, Virginia’s softball program was geographically scattered. Players would have to go from class or home to The Park, to one place to lift and condition, then to the locker room, then walk half a mile to the playing field, then to nutrition quartered elsewhere, to the coaches offices (also elsewhere) then possibly back to class.

“What this really gives us is time,” Rayle said. “We didn’t have a place to really spend time together. Now we have a place to bond. We’re already talking about having a team sleepover to break it in.”

It’s not only the facilities hidden from public view, but the field itself.

“The field is amazing,” said Arizona Ritchie, a sophomore from Stafford. “I’m an infielder, so the first thing I did was feel the dirt and it’s like soft and not rock hard (like at The Park).

She also doesn’t have to invite friends to come to a game and wonder if they’ll be able to find the joint.

“I’d tell people, ‘Oh, come to a softball game,’” Ritchie would say to friends. “They would say, ‘Oh? Where is that? You guys have a field here?’”

All of her friends said they’ll be there this week.

With everything housed in the same facility, it should help team unity, more contact with coaches, a better, all-inclusive experience for the program.

Four UVA softball players admire the view from inside their new, spacious locker room at Palmer Park.

The attendance will likely grow as well, which means more support for the program. That’s what Lisa Palmer and her Mom envisioned. Palmer pitched for UVA from 1986-89, and had her No. 22 jersey retired in 1990.

Hardin is expecting big crowds, particularly this week with JMU followed by the first home ACC series against Virginia Tech this weekend.

“I think all those seats are going to be filled very often,” she said. “We would typically get 500 to 600 people for JMU anyway. Now, with all the space, I would expect it to be very crowded.”

Season tickets jumped from an anticipated 40 to 132, four of those coming compliments of Hardin’s dad.

She also noticed during practices at Palmer last week that fans attending lacrosse games strolled past the new facility, stopping to take a look from the outfield, pausing for photographs.

“There will be a curiosity factor, I think,” Hardin said. “I think a lot of people will trickle in. If fans knew there was a softball team before, they couldn’t find it.”

That’s no longer a problem. Palmer jumps out at passers-by, beckoning them to come take a look. It’s no longer the one mysterious UVA athletic program, stuck out on an unknown island.

Now, about creating Covington’s new memories …

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