They Wanted Their Name To Endure. Now, It’s Attached to an NCAA Tournament Team

May 14, 2024 By Andrew Ramspacher, fpa5up@virginia.edu Andrew Ramspacher, fpa5up@virginia.edu

They landed at the Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport, hopped in their rental car and continued their journey toward the University of Virginia. That’s when the tears started to flow. 

UVA softball alumna Lisa Palmer tries to make it back to her alma mater to see the Wahoos play at least one home series a season. She travels from Florida and always brings along her mother, Fran. 

This season, the Palmers arrived in mid-April ahead of the team’s three-game weekend series against North Carolina State University. The Cavaliers, with a 26-12 record, entered the matchup nationally ranked for the first time in three decades. 

As the Palmers drove farther south on U.S. 29, the reality of the situation began to sink in. They were on the verge of watching a historically surging UVA team play softball at a place called Palmer Park. 

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“My mother just started crying,” Lisa said. “She gets so emotional because she’s so proud of me, of the vision, and of what coach Jo (Hardin) and her coaches have been able to accomplish as a result of our gift.”

Hardin’s Cavaliers will compete in the NCAA Tournament on Friday in Knoxville, Tennessee, against Miami University (Ohio). This is only the second NCAA appearance for a program that’s been around since 1980. 

 

 

Lisa Palmer has a keen sense of this accomplishment. Not only did she play for the Wahoos – an all-region pitcher in the late 1980s, her No. 22 jersey long since retired – but she later served on the Virginia Athletics Foundation board, where she routinely fought for more University support for her sport, including facility upgrades. 

Lisa Palmer pitching in a black and white photo

Lisa Palmer was a star pitcher for the Wahoos in the late 1980s. (UVA Athletics photo)

All that came to fruition on March 3, 2020, when the Hoos began a new era on the corner of Massie and Copeley roads. Palmer Park, a stunning stadium named after its lead gift contributors and equipped with an indoor player development center, locker room, team lounge and training room, among other amenities, hosted its first game that day. 

It’s likely not a coincidence that the team, four years later, is in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010. 

“Coach Jo is amazing,” Lisa Palmer said of Hardin, who’s in her eighth season at Virginia, “but without the facility, she and the other coaches wouldn’t have had the success that they’ve had because there’s just too much competition in today’s world. There are other really good academic schools that have good facilities, and Virginia simply couldn’t compete for that kind of talent prior to Palmer Park being finished. 

“And so it’s easy to draw the connection and know that that’s a big part of the foundation of the success.”

 

 

When Palmer played, UVA softball’s home field was where Klöckner Stadium now stands. It was a humbling site, Palmer said, with a shoddy surface, no locker rooms, limited seating and “dugouts” with wooden benches that once gave Palmer a splinter in a finger on her throwing hand and caused her to miss a start. 

“I went to pick up my glove before a game, just scoop underneath it, and that’s when I got the splinter,” she said. “I had to go to the training room. It was really bad.”

UVA softball coach Joanna Hardin, Fran Palmer, Lisa Palmer and Director of Athletics Carla Williams headlined Palmer Park’s dedication in March 2020.
UVA softball coach Joanna Hardin, Fran Palmer, Lisa Palmer and Director of Athletics Carla Williams headlined Palmer Park’s dedication in March 2020. (Photo by Matt Riley, University Communications)

The Hoos moved to The Park in 1995 and stayed there through 2019. While it was an upgrade over the previous location, the nondescript stadium, tucked away in a far corner of North Grounds, still lagged behind UVA’s peers in the Atlantic Coast Conference and elsewhere. 

Palmer, a Pennsylvania native who received her economics degree from the University and has gone on to become the president and CEO of Regency Centers Corp. in Jacksonville, made her first big investment in the improvement of her former program in 2014 when she and her mom endowed a full scholarship. It’s awarded to a Cavalier softball player who exemplifies leadership, hard work and dedication to the team.

“It was through the scholarship,” she said, “that I became more connected to the team itself and the players, and started to realize that my impact could be even more significant if I continued to push.”

The effort hasn’t gone unappreciated. 

Speaking recently on the Wahoo Central Podcast with UVA’s Jeff White, Hardin said Palmer’s heart is “these young women,” referring to the Wahoo players. “She wants them to grow on and off the field. … Lisa’s always cared about the people. And so has Fran. That’s what makes them really special – really special to me and really special to our program.” 

left to right, Abby Weaver, Lauren VanAssche, Madison Harris, Leah Boggs and Mikayla Houge
The majority of UVA’s current senior softball class – featuring, left to right, Abby Weaver, Lauren VanAssche, Madison Harris, Leah Boggs and Mikayla Houge – arrived as Palmer Park opened. Four years later, they’ve helped the Cavaliers make the NCAA Tournament for the second time in program history. (Photos by Matt Riley, University Communications)

Senior catcher Leah Boggs, part of a five-player 2020 recruiting class that was ranked by Extra Inning Softball as the 30th-best in the nation, said Lisa Palmer’s story inspires their locker room.

“We preach about being grateful for the opportunities that we have and this (Palmer Park) is something that people have had in the works for a really long time,” Boggs said, “people like Lisa Palmer.

“She came in and she made an impact on the program when she was here, and she was playing. And now she’s continued to make that impact in different ways. She’s so invested in us.”

Palmer has no children, but her mother always wanted to make sure the family name carried on in some capacity. Seeing that legacy continue now atop a softball stadium that houses an NCAA Tournament team is enough to make both mother and daughter emotional.

“During a big event at our company,” Lisa Palmer said, “I was recently asked about the thing I’m most proud of at Regency. 

“And I thought about it and said, ‘I can’t answer that because I keep coming back to something outside of here. The thing I’m most proud of is Palmer Park.’”

Media Contact

Andrew Ramspacher

University News Associate University Communications