A rainy weekend didn’t dampen the Highland Cavaliers’ softball Sunday.
It’s all thanks to a new artificial turf softball field at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise (UVA Wise). Sunday’s double header served as the first home games of the season and the first time the Highland Cavaliers played on their new artificial turf field.
“In previous years it's a 100 percent chance we would not be playing softball here today, and probably this entire week, due to the rainfall and what the marsh in the outfield would have looked like,” said UVA Wise Athletics Director Kendall Rainey. “While it's not 55 degrees and sunny today, this is why we did this—an opportunity to play on this field today after the weather we've had over the past couple of days. This new field is a testament to how the College and its many supporters are dedicated to elevating the experience of our students.”
Rainey, a former Highland Cavalier center fielder, added, “I could not be prouder and more excited for UVA Wise athletics and our softball program.”
UVA Wise softball catcher Mallory McKnight, of Leesburg, Va., earned her place in College history by getting the first hit on the new field Sunday.
“I have been in a bit of a slump to start the season and playing at home I was just feeling confident and comfortable so it was great to contribute to our games with some solid hits,” said McKnight, a junior pursuing a sports management major and a minor in communications. “Team 25 is a great group and we are all working as a team and while we played hard, we had a great time and I wish we could have pulled out the win to do our new field proud, hopefully next time.
Before the games Sunday, Rainey, UVA Wise Chancellor Donna P. Henry, UVA Wise Softball Co-Head Coach Karen Bitter and a host of other Highland Cavaliers, fans, supporters and alumni came out for a ribbon-cutting ceremony and to celebrate the new field.
“I am so incredibly pleased to welcome you all today, a day that we have dreamed of for decades. It’s an historic day for our softball program and truly a great day for UVA Wise and Southwest Virginia,” Henry said.
She said UVA Wise coaches have suggested that the College transition to artificial turf fields for many years.
“Despite the fact that we are located in these amazing mountains, the winters can be severe, especially to the playing surface of softball. We have seen our coaches, players and staff work tirelessly carrying buckets of water off of the field and constantly spreading the tarp to protect the field as best as possible,” Henry said. “Too often, our team has not been able to practice nor compete on their own field for the first part of the spring semester. Hopefully, those days are over now.”
Henry said the improved field is a “game changer” that will help coaches recruit players who may not have otherwise had the opportunity to pursue a higher education and change their lives.
“Our student athletes learn life skills that they will carry with them forever, and their strong work ethic on the field will transfer into the classroom, and into the UVA Wise community and beyond,” Henry said. “There is no better way to invest in our future leaders than by clearing pathways as this field is doing for these student-athletes.”
UVA Wise Softball Co-Head Coach Karen Bitter said she was grateful for the new field.
“It’s beautiful. We are out here playing ball today and we weren't busting our tails, for lack of a better term, in order to get the field prepared to do this. As Chancellor Henry said, this is a life changer. For me, I was with my family drinking coffee this morning instead of getting the field ready to go and the players weren't running around trying to help and get the field taken care of,” Bitter said.
The Highland Cavalier Softball team now has a Field Turf Triple Threat surface, similar to other NCAA Division II colleges and universities. The $1.4 million softball artificial turf field project is being funded by private support.
“I would like to thank the generous donors and alumni who have made this possible and we will work so hard to continue to put a wonderful softball program together and make the Cavalier Nation proud,” Bitter said.
The new field offers the opportunity to host tournaments for college and high school teams, locally and beyond, which will showcase the College and enhance the regional economy.
The artificial turf field improves drainage, a constant issue from inclement weather. It will provide student athletes more time on their home field and increase more games at home and outdoor practice opportunities. The new turf also improves speed, bounce and line consistency.
Rainey thanked key project partners including primary engineer LDD Sports, construction group Land Tek with local support from Thompson and Litton for “designing, building and installing a softball field for UVA Wise to be proud of for years to come.”