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'Everyone was emotional': UNC softball looks forward after shortened season

UNC junior pitcher Brittany Pickett (28) winds up for a pitch during a double header against the FSU Seminoles at G. Anderson Softball Stadium on Monday, April 15, 2019. The Tar Heels beat the Seminoles in both games.

Just two days after beating Tennessee in early March, the North Carolina softball team was looking forward to its first ACC road series against Virginia. 

Then, the world of sports turned upside down.

When the NBA suspended its season due to the COVID-19 outbreak and many conference basketball tournaments barred fan attendance, the team was traveling through Knoxville, Tennessee. Then, head coach Donna Papa found out there would be a conference call at 2 p.m. to discuss the spread of the virus. Having an idea of how the call might end, the team stopped for lunch. 

“We kind of had the ‘last supper’ at Cheesecake Factory, where I allowed them to have soft drinks and dessert, which is something I don’t normally do,” Papa said. “I wanted them to have a great meal because in the back of my mind, I knew that we would be going home.”

On the call, she found out her prediction was spot-on. The Tar Heels were told that the NCAA was canceling all spring competition, which ended their season.

“Everyone was emotional because, as teammates, they worked so hard from August through this time just to have the season cut in half,” Papa said. 

When the season was canceled, Papa mentioned that she was especially upset for the senior class, because they wouldn’t be able to participate in the team’s usual end-of-season festivities to celebrate their careers. Her concerns were alleviated, to some extent, when a few weeks later the NCAA ruled that all spring athletes would be given an extra year of eligibility. Although some members of the senior class are forgoing that option to pursue career-related opportunities, Papa said the team plans to see two senior starters returning: Campbell Hutcherson and Brittany Pickett. 

Hutcherson was a key presence in the lineup before the season shut down. In 23 starts at second base, her .341 batting average ranked second on the team while boasting an impressive .996 OPS.  

Pickett, who planned on redshirting last season after being sidelined with a thumb injury to her pitching hand, will be a major boost to a pitching staff that was short-handed at times this season. A three-time member of the All-ACC first team, she has a career ERA of 2.39.

Long before having any idea of how the season would unfold, Pickett said she felt a sense that it wouldn’t be her last in Chapel Hill.

“Going into the fall, for some reason, I had a strange feeling that this wasn’t going to be my last season,” Pickett said. “I don’t know what it was, but that’s how I felt.”

Throughout the season, Pickett grew into her new role as a leader from the dugout, where she watched sophomore pitcher Hannah George put together a string of impressive starts, accumulating a 3.40 ERA in nearly 97 innings of work. When she returns to the mound, Pickett is excited to see what the tandem can accomplish.

“We kind of work hand-in-hand, where I know that if I can’t get the job done, she will,” Pickett said. “With my experience, I also am proud of my role of being able to come in and help the team execute when needed.”

As the team continues its remote offseason, Papa said that the team has been using weekly Zoom meetings to stay connected as a group. In these meetings, Papa said one topic the team discussed was “The Last Dance," ESPN's 10-part documentary series on the 1998 Chicago Bulls, particularly focusing on how Michael Jordan became a better teammate throughout his career. Next week, the team will begin a series detailing the issues of racial injustice, where Papa wants all voices to be heard.

“We have a very diverse team, and we want to make sure that we’re talking about these things so everyone can have a voice and feel represented,” Papa said.

When the team returns to campus this fall, there will certainly be some changes to how the team is able to operate. Papa said some of the team's budget will be cut, and practices will act under a “new normal," where equipment must be sanitized and players will have their temperatures checked upon arrival. Despite these challenges, the Tar Heels know that they have no choice but to be flexible to the circumstances. 

“We can’t come in and think, ‘There’s so much change; I can’t do this,' because I believe the team that adapts to these changes the best is going to be the team that is going to be the most successful,” Papa said. 


@DTHSports |

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