Preview: JMU Softball Looks to Win Ann Arbor Regional

Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications

By Bennett Conlin

As you can tell by the headline of this article, JMU softball isn’t hosting an NCAA Regional in 2019. Despite a 47-7 overall record, and a resume that is veeeery similar to Michigan’s, the Dukes will travel to Ann Arbor to face the 15th-seeded Wolverines, DePaul and St. Francis. (Technically, there’s no guarantee the Dukes will face Michigan, but I’d be surprised if the Dukes and Wolverines don’t square off at least once.)

After getting over the initial shock of missing out on a top-16 seed, JMU fans reacted with a mix of outrage and confidence. Social media was filled with comments from, “I hope JMU run rules every team en route to the Super Regionals!” all the way to “JMU is easily going to beat Michigan again and cruise to the Super Regionals! Missing out on a seed doesn’t mean anything!” Admittedly, social media isn’t the best place to find rational takes, but even so, these opinions were particularly outlandish.

Not getting a seed hurts JMU

Sorry, JMU Nation, but it’s true. In the last three seasons, 46 of the 48 seeded teams advanced to the Super Regionals. In the past two seasons, all 32 seeded teams advanced to the Super Regionals. Making a Super Regional as an unseeded team is hard, and making the WCWS as an unseeded team is darn near impossible.

To make matters worse, Michigan is 15-0 at home this season, compared to a solid, but not outstanding, mark of 28-11 in games away from Ann Arbor. The Wolverines, who have a 26-10 record in true road games the past two seasons, are 85-6 at home since the start of the 2015 season. Home-field advantage is crucial in college softball. The idea that JMU will head to Ann Arbor and roll through the competition en route to the Super Regional is fine and dandy, but it’s not based in fact.

Here’s the deal: Michigan softball is fantastic at home, and JMU softball is better at home than it is on the road. Just this season, the Dukes are 24-1 at Veteran’s Memorial Park and 23-6 in games outside Harrisonburg. Don’t get me wrong, JMU is still an elite road team — it’s 76-12 in true road games since the start of the 2015 season — but playing in Harrisonburg would’ve been an advantage.

While getting the short end of the NCAA Tournament stick stinks, JMU still has a winnable Regional — as many were quick to point out.

Let’s dive into the nitty gritty of the Ann Arbor Regional and share why the Dukes may advance, although it won’t be via three run-rule victories like fans hope.

Examining the Dukes

We’ll start by explaining how JMU earned its spot in the NCAA Regional before we take a detailed look at the opposition.

JMU Dukes

Record: 47-7, 20-1 CAA

How they got here: The Dukes won both the CAA regular season and tournament titles. The tournament championship secured an automatic berth into the tournament, although the Dukes would’ve qualified regardless.

RPI: 13

Strengths: Hitting and pitching. For the most part, JMU is a complete softball team. The Dukes lead the country in runs per game and rank sixth in ERA. JMU is capable of beating teams in a variety of ways, which makes the Dukes dangerous. They’re just as comfortable winning a 1-0 pitcher’s duel as they are winning a 10-8 slugfest. The team can win in a variety of ways.

Weaknesses: Speed. The Dukes are 35-46 on stolen bases this season, and they just aren’t built to steal bases, especially with its starting lineup. The 35-46 mark isn’t bad, but it’s not particularly impressive. The Dukes’ overall team speed isn’t bad, but there’s a noticeable difference between what JMU does and Michigan does on the bases.

Inconsistency, especially against top-25 caliber foes, is another area of potential concern. JMU undergoes the occasional lull, where it isn’t quite as locked in as it needs to be. For example, the Dukes lost 12-0 to Virginia Tech immediately after beating the Hokies 3-1 in the first game of a doubleheader.

Top hitter: All of them? It’s nearly impossible to take one JMU hitter above the rest, but let’s go with Kate Gordon. The junior leads the team with 74 hits and 18 home runs. She sports an unbelievable .440 batting average on the season and is fourth on the team with 54 RBIs. She’s also a perfect 5-5 on steals. She’s an elite hitter and arguably the hottest hitter at the tournament, as she’s blasted three home runs in her last four games. The whole team is incredible at the plate. Check out the Dukes’ season stats:

Graphic by Jack Fitzpatrick, photo courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications

Top pitcher: The wins and losses say Odicci Alexander, but Megan Good is JMU’s ace. The redshirt senior throws hard and has an impressive array of pitches. She was drafted professionally for a reason, and the JMU legend is among the best pitchers in the entire country. She’s the best pitcher, and player, at this Regional.

Key to winning the Regional: Putting pressure on its opponents early in games. The Dukes have never had an offense this good, but they’ve been solid offensively before, only to go cold against quality foes in the postseason.

In 2017, JMU fans felt the Dukes deserved a national seed. JMU didn’t get one and was sent to Texas to face 15th-seeded Baylor. The situation is similar to this season. Coming into the NCAA Tournament, the Dukes scored 30 runs in three mercy-rule CAA Tournament wins. This year, JMU scored 33 runs in three mercy-rule CAA Tournament wins. JMU scored at least nine runs in every CAA Tournament game in 2017.

Unfortunately for JMU, the Dukes scored just nine runs total in four 2017 NCAA Regional games. Baylor beat JMU twice, even with Megan Good in the circle, and advanced to the Super Regionals. The Dukes scored a dreadful two runs in two games against Baylor en route to an early postseason exit.

If JMU wants to avoid that fate in 2019, the Dukes need to get on the board early and live up to their offensive hype. With the Dukes’ pitching, scoring a few runs in the first three innings can put opponents at a massive disadvantage. On the other hand, falling behind early could be a killer.

While the Dukes have the firepower to come back, postseason softball is as much a mental exercise as it is a physical competition. With just two losses, your season ends. Good is JMU’s only senior, and the Dukes haven’t fared well in their past two Regional appearances. Falling behind early in games might make the young lineup second guess itself and start pressing to make things happen. That’s JMU’s worst-case scenario in this Regional.

If JMU can pounce on opponents quickly, it may very well go 3-0 en route to a Super Regional. On the flip side, a rocky start could lead to a repeat of the 2017 and 2018 seasons. The first three innings of games are going to be critical.

Scouting the opposition

DePaul Blue Demons

Record: 34-14, 11-5 Big East

How they got here: The Blue Demons finished second in the Big East in the regular season, but won the conference tournament to automatically qualify for the NCAA Tournament. DePaul scored eight runs in the sixth inning against Villanova in the conference title game en route to an 11-10 win.

RPI: 86

Strengths: Plate discipline. Of the eight teams in the Big East, the Blue Demons rank second in walks and have the fewest strikeouts of any team in the conference. This is a good quality to have against teams like Michigan and JMU.

Weaknesses: Striking out opposing batters. The Blue Demons have 206 strikeouts in 324 2/3 innings pitched. That’s a recipe for disaster against teams that hit as well as JMU and Michigan. Allowing opposing batters to consistently put the ball in play just doesn’t work at the highest level of softball. In the team’s 11-10 win in the Big East Championship, DePaul walked eight batters and struck out just two.

Top hitter: Junior catcher/third baseman Jessica Cothern. She leads the team in home runs, RBIs and hits. She’s the most dynamic threat in DePaul’s lineup and boasts a .356 batting average.

Top pitcher: Sophomore Natalie Halvorson. She owns a 3.08 ERA and a 21-7 record. She’s a quality pitcher, although Krista Dalgarn doesn’t fall far behind with a 3.58 ERA and 13-7 record. Unfortunately for the Blue Demons, neither pitcher is a strikeout pitcher.

Key to winning the Regional: DePaul needs to beat JMU on Friday in the first game of the Regional. The Blue Demons need to play well and hope the Dukes put the ball in play but leave runners on base. An opening win could boost the team’s confidence and knock JMU out of the Regional quickly. DePaul doesn’t have the pure talent to win this Regional without both Michigan and JMU playing poorly. It would be astounding if the Blue Demons advanced to the Super Regional.

St. Francis Red Flash

Record: 29-29, 10-6 NEC

How they got here: The Red Flash finished third in the regular season standings, but they were able to get by top-seeded LIU Brooklyn in the conference tournament to earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament.

RPI: 173

Strengths: Hitting home runs. This team digs the long ball. St. Francis hit a whopping 66 home runs this year. While the Red Flash played more games and had significantly more ABs than other teams in the NEC, that’s still 29 more home runs than any other team in the conference.

Weaknesses: Anything that isn’t hitting. This is a bad weakness to have. The team’s ERA is an abysmal 5.40, and the Red Flash only have 148 strikeouts in 380 innings pitched. They also have the worst fielding percentage in their conference.

Top hitter: Senior outfielder Hayley Norton. She leads the team with a .372 batting average, 16 home runs and 65 RBIs. She’s the team’s best hitter and will be a tough out in this tournament.

Top pitcher: Freshman Christina Clark is the best of the bunch, but sports an ERA of 4.69 and has as many walks (76) as she does strikeouts. While the Red Flash is going to struggle to get batters out against this level of competition, three of the four pitchers the team has used this season are freshmen. The future in the circle looks promising for St. Francis.

Key to winning the Regional: Michigan and JMU forget to attend the tournament. The Red Flash could also advance if half of Michigan’s players and half of JMU’s players decide to transfer to St. Francis and gain immediate eligibility.

The Red Flash deserve A TON of credit for advancing to the NCAA Tournament and for picking up a young pitching staff with timely hitting, but there’s no chance St. Francis advances to the Super Regional.

Michigan Wolverines

Record: 43-11, 22-1 Big Ten

How they got here: The Wolverines won the Big Ten regular season title and won the conference tournament to earn the conference’s automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament.

RPI: 12

Strengths: Hitting and pitching. Much like JMU, Michigan is a complete softball team. The Wolverines throw two stud underclassmen pitchers at opponents and bat .320 as a team. They’re also an impressive 59-69 on stolen base attempts. Michigan is legit. Oh, and Michigan head coach Carol Huggins is the winningest coach in NCAA Softball history. She’s led the Wolverines for 35 years. She’s a tremendous asset.

Graphic courtesy of Jack Fitzpatrick, image courtesy of Michigan Athletics Communications

Weaknesses: Lineup depth and pitching experience. Michigan relies a lot on underclassmen, especially in the circle, which can be problematic in the postseason. Age doesn’t determine performance, but attacking JMU’s lineup in a win-or-go-home situation is a daunting task for younger pitchers.

Depth comes into play as Michigan has five statistically eligible players batting over .300, but the bottom of Michigan’s order won’t strike fear into elite pitchers.

Top hitter: Freshman outfielder Lexie Blair leads the team in batting average (.424), doubles (21) and RBIs (53). She’s an extremely talented outfielder with good speed and power. She’s 11-13 on stolen base attempts and leads the team in slugging percentage.

Top pitcher: Left-handed sophomore Meghan Beaubien leads the team in innings pitched, strikeouts, wins and WHIP, but freshman Alex Storako isn’t far behind. Both pitchers have identical 2.00 ERAs, and Storako has the lower opponents’ batting average. Michigan has a two-headed monster on par with the Dukes’ 1-2 punch of Good and Alexander.

Key to winning the Regional: The Wolverines want to keep playing Michigan softball and use the crowd to their advantage. They’re a good team in all facets of the game, and there’s no reason they can’t advance out of this regional.

Michigan should demolish St. Francis on Friday before facing JMU or Depaul on Saturday. If Michigan wins Saturday’s game against the JMU-DePaul winner, it’s in the driver’s seat to win the Regional. I believe that’s the key to Michigan winning the Regional. If the Wolverines get to Sunday with a 2-0 record, I like them to advance to the Super Regional. If the Wolverines lose Saturday, I don’t think they advance to the Super Regional.

Predictions

Game 1: DePaul vs. JMU

JMU faces DePaul in the first round in a winnable game. DePaul is solid, but the Blue Demons aren’t overwhelmingly good in any area, and the team’s pitching doesn’t strike out enough batters to get through JMU’s lineup.

Result: JMU wins 10-1 in a five-inning mercy rule victory

Game 2: St. Francis vs. Michigan

I don’t think the Red Flash can keep this game close, especially with such a young pitching staff. Michigan opens the tournament in style.

Result: Michigan wins 16-1 in a five-inning mercy rule victory.

Game 3: St. Francis vs. DePaul

DePaul is the more complete team, although St. Francis has a few exciting bats. I think the Red Flash struggles in the circle and ultimately loses a compelling game.

Result: DePaul wins 11-7 and St. Francis gets eliminated

Game 4: JMU vs. Michigan

This is the matchup everyone wants to see. The Dukes believe they were slighted by the Selection Committee, while the Wolverines feel like they’re capable of a deep tournament run despite a young core of contributors.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see JMU throw Odicci Alexander in the circle and bring Good into the circle in relief if needed. The Dukes like to start with Alexander and lean on Good late. JMU’s lineup is playing significantly better than it was when these teams first met. In fact, the lineup looks completely different now. Loren LaPorte has found a way to optimize the Dukes’ lineup for postseason success.

JMU’s lineup order when Michigan and JMU played on March 7

  • Sara Jubas
  • Cambry Arnold
  • Kate Gordon
  • Odicci Alexander
  • Hannah File
  • Megan Good
  • Natalie Cutright
  • Kierstin Roadcap
  • Madison Naujokas

JMU’s lineup vs. Elon in the CAA title on May 10

  • Hannah File
  • Kate Gordon
  • Megan Good
  • Odicci Alexander
  • Logan Newton
  • Sara Jubas
  • Kierstin Roadcap
  • Cambry Arnold
  • Madison Naujokas

The Dukes’ lineup is playing at an elite level now, while the March lineup was still finding its rhythm. The order, and introduction of Logan Newton, makes this team significantly better than it was earlier in the year.

I think the Dukes find a way to push a few runs across in the first few innings against Michigan. With such tremendous pitching talent, a few runs might be enough to come away with the win.

Result: JMU wins 4-1

Game 5: DePaul vs. Michigan

Michigan is far and away the better team. In a Saturday elimination game at home, the Wolverines come away with a commanding win after a frustrating loss to JMU.

Result: Michigan wins 10-1 in five innings.

Game 6: JMU vs. Michigan

If JMU wins, Michigan’s season ends. If Michigan wins, the teams play a second game on Sunday to determine the Regional winner. Michigan head coach Carol Huggins is in her 35th season leading the Wolverines. She’s the winningest coach in NCAA Softball history. After a full night to prep for JMU and Megan Good after losing to the Dukes on Saturday, the Wolverines adjust and race past the Dukes.

Result: Michigan wins 6-3

Game 7: JMU vs. Michigan

The Regional comes down to one game on Sunday afternoon for a berth in a Super Regional. I imagine JMU throws Megan Good in the circle and gives the Wolverines all they can handle. I really like this 2019 JMU team. The pitching is tremendous, and the lineup is unbelievable. Bottom line: The Dukes are a Super Regional team. They find a way to get it done.

Result: JMU wins 3-2

JMU vs. Michigan

Clearly, I don’t think DePaul or St. Francis pose much of a threat in this Regional. In my opinion, this is all about JMU and No. 15 Michigan. The stats say the two teams stack up pretty well, with the Dukes having a slight edge in most statistical areas. Is that because JMU is better or did JMU face an easier schedule?

It’s a tough question, but I think JMU is a more complete team. Michigan’s youth leads me to believe the Wolverines are going to contend for a national title in the next two seasons, but I see them barely losing in this Regional. It’s going to be close. Keep an eye on the pitching of both teams, which is critical in the postseason.

Graphic by Jack Fitzpatrick

The bottom line

JMU has Megan Good. I have a hard time picking against a team led by the redshirt senior. Get ready for JMU-UCLA in the Super Regionals.

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