JMU Sports 2018 Recap

Photo courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications

By Bennett Conlin

Two national championship game appearances highlighted an exciting year for JMU athletics. On the opposite end of the spectrum, men’s basketball continued to underwhelm in 2018, and questions surrounding Louis Rowe’s job security are heating up. So what should you make of the past 365 days in JMU sports? We’ll take a program-by-program look at the highlights and lowlights of 2018, as well as 2018 takeaways and a 2019 outlook.

Note: I’d encourage you to read Blake Pace’s 2018 year in review article for The Breeze.

This piece is outlined with a few of the major revenue sports first, but the order of sports mentioned after the first few is largely random.

Football

Highlight: Oct. 5. This is the day before JMU played Elon. Prior to this point, the Dukes were 4-2 in 2018 with a national title game loss to North Dakota State in January and a 4-1 mark to start the 2018 season. The lone loss came to North Carolina State, and the Dukes held their own in the game. When Oct. 5 rolled around, many believed the Dukes were on a collision course for Frisco with the Bison.

Lowlight: Nov. 3. JMU’s loss to Colgate was a close second, but the loss to New Hampshire was the Dukes’ ugliest performance of 2018. Ben DiNucci was quickly benched, and Cole Johnson turned the ball over multiple times before JMU ultimately fell 35-24 to the Wildcats, who didn’t make the playoffs.

While the Colgate game itself might not have been the clear No. 1 lowlight, Mike Houston’s departure just days after the loss even worse. Both the New Hampshire loss and the Mike Houston saga and Colgate loss were the two biggest blemishes on JMU football’s calendar year.

2018 Takeaway: JMU’s talent was clear, but the Dukes were plagued by consistent mistakes. Key drops, sloppy turnovers and missed opportunities killed JMU in 2018. Despite disappointing losses, the program is in great shape heading into 2019.

2019 Outlook: Expectations are high for new head coach Curt Cignetti. JMU returns nearly every starter from a playoff team, and fans want another trip to the national title game. Quarterback play remains a question, but JMU’s roster deserves the unbelievable hype it’s going to receive for the next eight months.

Men’s Basketball

Highlight: *Checks notes* Yep, there’s nothing.

Kidding. While it’s easy to be cynical about the state of JMU men’s basketball, it’s a stretch to say the program didn’t have solid moments in 2018. Five-star recruit Isaiah Todd visited Harrisonburg, and the Dukes landed three-star wing Michael Christmas in their 2019 recruiting class.

I’ll name Nov. 19 as the highlight of the year for the Dukes. JMU sat at 4-0 this season as all of this recruiting news dominated basketball headlines. Those were simpler times.

Lowlight: Last season’s woes were ignored due to claims of “youth and inexperience.” This season’s 7-8 record, however, isn’t easy to explain away. The Dukes struggle with turnovers and shooting, both of which are rather important parts of playing basketball. Dec. 31 is JMU’s lowlight of 2018. The Dukes just took an awful loss to Elon and are 0-2 in CAA play. A 5-8 mark against Division I foes has fan excitement dwindling.

2018 Takeaway: Louis Rowe’s process deserves questioning. Is his recruiting prowess worth the current on-court product?

2019 Outlook: It’s hard to tell. The incoming recruiting classes show promise, but watching the on-court product gets less and less bearable. If JMU doesn’t start winning more consistently, the 2019-2020 season may feature a new head coach.

Women’s Basketball

Highlight: Dec. 31. While men’s basketball’s lowlight is recent, I believe this women’s team is the best in the Sean O’Regan era. JMU sits at 8-3 with two narrow losses against Hampton and Wake Forest. Realistically, JMU should be 10-1 with a road loss to Maryland, which suffered its first loss today and is a top-5 team. JMU ends the year in tremendous shape.

Lowlight: March 9. JMU lost in the CAA Tournament Semifinals. It wasn’t just that the Dukes lost to Elon, it’s how. They weren’t competitive. It’s one thing to lose by 20+ points to Maryland, it’s another thing to lose 76-53 to a conference foe at a neutral site. Expect this loss to motivate the Dukes in the spring when this year’s conference tournament roll around.

2018 Takeaway: JMU is one of the best teams in the CAA, but the field is catching up to the Dukes, who seem like they’re the preseason favorite every year.

2019 Outlook: While the conference is improving and giving JMU a run for its money, the Dukes are the best team the conference has to offer this season. Expect Kamiah Smalls, who surpassed 1,000 career points in her last outing, to start putting her name in the conversation for greatest JMU women’s basketball player with a phenomenal conference season. She’s an elite scorer that should own conference play.

Lacrosse

Highlight: What do you think? The Dukes won the 2018 national championship in a historically great season. May 27, 2018, is a special day for JMU athletics.

Lowlight: JMU fell to No. 4 Maryland 15-12 in a competitive road contest on March 24. Not a bad lowlight at all.

2018 Takeaway: The Dukes can beat the nation’s best.

2019 Outlook: The program is in great shape under Shelley Klaes-Bawcombe. I don’t see another national title in the stars, but an NCAA Tournament appearance is likely, and the Dukes have enough pieces to make a run — just don’t expect a repeat of last season.

Softball

Highlight: Making the NCAA Tournament and beating Ohio on May 18. The Dukes lost their subsequent two games, but winning an NCAA Tournament game without Megan Good is a big deal.

Lowlight: Jan. 25. Megan Good was ruled out for the 2018 season with a knee injury. The Dukes’ Women’s College World Series hopes ended before the season started.

2018 Takeaway: While Megan Good is arguably the best athlete in JMU history, the team remains competitive without its ace. It wasn’t a national title threat without Good, but the Dukes were one of the best mid-major teams in the country.

2019 Outlook: I love this team’s current position. Megan Good returns this season as the team’s only senior. JMU fought hard in Loren LaPorte’s first season, and several young players gained meaningful experience with Good injured. The Dukes have three serviceable pitchers in Good, Odicci Alexander and Payton Buresch. A trip to Oklahoma City for the first time in program history is in the stars, assuming Good returns to her usual self. With such a young team, the 2020 outlook looks good as well.

Volleyball

Highlight: Oct. 20. The Dukes were a day removed from starting CAA play 9-0 and held a 17-3 record.

Lowlight: Nov. 18. JMU fell to Hofstra in the CAA Championship title match. The Dukes led by a set before dropping the final two sets and missing out on an NCAA Tournament appearance.

2018 Takeaway: Under Lauren Steinbrecher, the Dukes are a consistent threat to make the NCAA Tournament.

2019 Outlook: Despite a few key departures, the Dukes retain talented players capable of leading this team to the NCAA Tournament. Can JMU finally break through and pick up an NCAA Tournament win?

Baseball

Highlight: May 19. JMU (26-26) finished the season on a five-game winning streak to finish the year with a .500 record.

Lowlight: The CAA Tournament was held in Harrisonburg. JMU didn’t qualify.

2018 Takeaway: JMU continues to struggle to top 30 wins under Marlin Ikenberry. The Dukes appear to be nearing a breakthrough, but it’s yet to come. The team’s pitching staff needs improvement.

2019 Outlook: I like the roster, especially the sophomore class, and think Ikenberry is building a team capable of winning the CAA. I don’t see a conference title this season, but JMU exceeds 30 wins in 2019.

Men’s Soccer

Highlight: Nov. 25. JMU beat Virginia Tech 3-0 to earn a spot in the Elite Eight in one of the best seasons in program history.

Lowlight: Oct. 27. The Dukes fell to Elon in a game that nearly cost them the CAA Regular Season title.  

2018 Takeaway: JMU nearly made the Final Four, but fell just short against Michigan State. This team overachieved in 2018 thanks to a gutsy team and incredible defense.

2019 Outlook: Don’t expect Elite Eight appearances to become the norm, but the Dukes should be in the mix for NCAA Tournament appearances for years to come.

Women’s Soccer

Highlight: Oct. 28. After starting 1-6, JMU’s win over the College of Charleston made the Dukes 10-1-1 since the rocky beginning to their 2018 campaign.

Lowlight: Sept. 9. JMU’s loss to High Point dropped the team to 1-6.

2018 Takeaway: When a team struggles out of the gate, it’s rare to see the squad rally to become one of the conference’s best teams, but that’s exactly what JMU did. The foundation has been laid for the Joshua Walters era.

2019 Outlook: Haley Crawford returns for her senior season, and the Dukes have the pieces to win the CAA.

Women’s Tennis

Highlight: April 3. JMU improved to an incredible 17-1 after a win over Radford.

Lowlight: April 22. JMU fell to William & Mary in the CAA championship match. The Dukes were on the verge of their first NCAA Tournament appearance.

2018 Takeaway: A 21-4 season ended with the Dukes losing in the CAA title match and head coach James Bryce left the program. Bryce was one of the best coaches the school had for any sport.

2019 Outlook: Expectations are dampened in head coach Shelley Jaudon’s first season at the helm due to the transfer of superstar rising sophomore Liz Norman to NC State. Her loss stings, and she’s likely to excel for the Wolfpack. The Dukes still possess plenty of talent, but a CAA title might be ambitious.

Men’s Tennis

Highlight: Feb. 23. The Dukes beat George Mason to improve to 7-1 and put the finishing touches on a five-game win streak.

Lowlight: April 20. JMU fell to Drexel in the CAA quarterfinals. The Dukes’ tournament run was finished before it got started.

2018 Takeaway: There were some bright spots en route to a 16-7 record, but the 2018 season ultimately ended in disappointing fashion.

2019 Outlook: The Dukes have a handful of talented juniors that should lead the team. If the younger players mesh well with the experienced leader, JMU may improve upon last year’s record in Steve Secord’s 27th season as head coach.

Men’s golf

Highlight: Sept. 25. JMU won the River Run Collegiate this fall, beating 12 other teams in the process.

Lowlight: March 6. JMU finished 14th out of 17 teams in an event hosted at Auburn.

2018 Takeaway: The Dukes finished fourth in the nine-team CAA Tournament. Improvement needs to be made for JMU to contend for conference titles.

2019 Outlook: This team features a handful of talented juniors with a few exciting freshmen prospects. The Dukes put together a solid fall and should contend for a top-three CAA finish.

Women’s golf

Highlight: Sept. 10. The Dukes finished third this fall in the William & Mary Invitational.

Lowlight: Sept. 23. JMU followed up a strong finish with a last-place finish in the 16-team Lady Paladin Invitational.

2018 Takeaway: The Dukes are a long way from contending for CAA titles.

2019 Outlook: First-year head coach Tommy Baker’s background is impressive. He deserves a few years to develop his culture before anyone rushes to judgment on the state of the program.

Track & field

Highlight: April 14. A second place finish in the 15-team Mason Invitational showed the Dukes are competitive regionally.

Lowlight: May 5. Finishing sixth out of eight teams in the CAA Championships was disappointing, but certainly not terrible.

2018 Takeaway: The team put together an impressive season.

2019 Outlook: The 2019 squad is young, but a few seniors should put together notable campaigns.

Cross country

Highlight: Sept. 8. Strong performances led to a victory in the seven-team JMU Invitational.

Lowlight: On Oct. 12, the Dukes finished 27th in the 28-team Penn State Open. The number doesn’t look great, but the field was challenging.

2018 Takeaway: Winning the JMU Invitational was a step in the right direction for a consistently competitive program.

2019 Outlook: Losing senior Olivia Viparina is a big blow, but the returning runners should put together a memorable 2019 season.

Swimming & diving

Highlight: Feb. 17. The Dukes won the CAA Championships.

Lowlight: The Dukes really didn’t have a lowlight during one of the program’s best campaigns in recent memory.  

2018 Takeaway: Dane Pedersen is an underrated gem of a head coach.

2019 Outlook: The team’s roster remains talented, and a CAA Championship repeat will be on the team’s mind.

Field Hockey

Highlight: Oct. 16. An 8-1 win over Saint Francis was JMU’s most dominant performance of the season.

Lowlight: Nov. 2. Delaware destroyed JMU 8-1 in the CAA semifinals, and the Dukes finished the 2018 season with a 6-12 record after starting the season ranked 17th nationally.

2018 Takeaway: JMU fell well short of expectations.

2019 Outlook: Christy Morgan is one of the best coaches at JMU, and the Dukes should return to national relevance in 2019.

Overall, JMU’s athletic programs are in a good spot. Several teams, including football, softball and lacrosse are relevant nationally. Men’s basketball and baseball are two prominent programs in need of the most improvement. If the last few years have shown us anything, JMU sports will be defined by coaching changes and a handful of CAA titles in 2019.

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