Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications
By Bennett Conlin
Let’s preface this story by saying that it’s June, and I’m talking about a sports season that won’t start until August. I’m speculating a bit when I say that the 2019-20 season could be the best in JMU athletics history. Nearly every team has a legitimate chance at a CAA title, and a couple teams are national title contenders.
To add some weight to my hypothetical prediction, let’s dig deeper at the sheer depth of JMU’s athletic programs heading into this next athletic year.
CAA title contenders
Football – The Dukes return 21 of 22 starters from a playoff team and enter the season in a top-2 position of most preseason polls. JMU has a chance to win the third national title in program history. It’s the CAA favorite.
Men’s basketball – JMU’s roster is arguably the best in the CAA. If not the best, the Dukes definitely have a top-3 lineup in the conference. Matt Lewis, Darius Banks, Dwight Wilson and DeShon Parker all return. Incoming recruits Michael Christmas, Julien Wooden, Mike Fowler and Quinn Richey are all capable of making major impacts immediately. The team is athletic and deep.
Women’s basketball – A potential starting lineup of Madison Green, Kamiah Smalls, Lexie Barrier, Devon Merritt and Kayla Cooper-Williams is insane. The Dukes are easily the CAA favorite.
Men’s soccer – Fresh off an Elite Eight appearance, the Dukes will likely enter the 2019 season as the CAA favorite.
Women’s soccer – JMU won the CAA regular season title, and star forward Haley Crawford returns. The Dukes should be in the conference title chase all year.
Lacrosse – Shelley Klaes-Bawcombe has built a juggernaut. The Dukes won’t just be CAA title favorites, they’ll be a national title threat in 2019-20.
Softball – Despite losing Megan Good, JMU softball expects to retain most of its top talent. Assuming the lineup stays together and healthy, the Dukes will be the clear CAA favorite. Odicci Alexander may cement her place in JMU sports history as a three-time CAA Player of the Year.
Swimming & diving – Bonnie Zhang leads a talented group of swimmers, and the team’s group of divers is young and talented. Hope Byrum enters her senior season as one of the CAA’s top divers.
Women’s tennis – JMU loses women’s tennis legend Emma Petersen, but the Dukes return rising senior Jona Roka and rising sophomore Daria Afanasyeva.
Volleyball – M’Kaela White enters her senior season as one of the most dynamic players in the CAA. The Dukes will be a CAA contender yet again under head coach Lauren Steinbrecher.
Major storylines are abundant
For JMU’s 2019-20 season to be considered the best in program history, there needs to be intrigue on and off the field. Major stories need to dominate local media coverage and generate excitement among fans. JMU won’t lack fascinating stories in 2019-20.
Curt Cignetti ushers in a new era of JMU football – The former Elon head coach inherits a program with national title aspirations. Cignetti is an interesting character with high expectations for his players. JMU football will draw massive headlines on a daily basis from late August through the late fall and early winter months.
Bridgeforth Stadium starts selling beer – This storyline might slow down toward the end of the season, but watching home attendance numbers will be an interesting topic all year. Will JMU fans stay past halftime now that beer is available through the third quarter?
The last season of basketball at the Convocation Center – Both JMU men’s and women’s basketball have elite CAA rosters. There’s a chance the final year of basketball in the Convocation Center could see two teams make the NCAA Tournament. Expect lots of emotions throughout the year as past Convocation Center memories get brought up.
Softball attempts to make the Women’s College World Series – This is becoming an annual storyline, and the Dukes’ 2020 roster should be good enough to contend for a spot in the WCWS. I wouldn’t bet on the Dukes making the WCWS this far away, but the 2020 season looks promising.
Lacrosse looks to return to national title form – After winning the national title in 2018, the Dukes took a minor step back in 2019. With a talented roster lead by goalkeeper Molly Dougherty returning, JMU should be a top-10 team in 2020.
Not only will JMU generate exciting stories, the excitement should remain throughout the fall, winter and spring months.
Minor storylines remain prevalent
Can Louis Rowe flip the script from being on the hot seat to the CAA Coach of the Year? This may be a stretch, but Rowe has a chance to improve his job security tremendously during the 2019-20 season. If JMU wins a CAA title, he’ll be the CAA Coach of the Year. If the Dukes fail to reach 15 wins, he might be out of a job.
Can Marlin Ikenberry build JMU baseball into a consistent contender? Harrisonburg loves baseball, but attendance at JMU baseball games is inconsistent. If the team exceeds 30 wins again in 2019, JMU baseball could become a big deal. If the Dukes take a step back in 2020, Ikenberry may find himself on the hot seat. With the team’s returning roster, there’s reason to believe another 30+ win season is coming.
Can field hockey return to CAA prominence? JMU field hockey normally takes a place atop the CAA standings, but the Dukes posted a 6-12 record last season. Will Christy Morgan lead her team back to CAA relevance?
Potential major achievements
The list below might be a little aggressive, but even if just one or two of the following events happen, they will be major accomplishments.
JMU football upsets West Virginia – The Dukes have the potential to beat the Mountaineers despite questions at quarterback and with the offensive line. A win over a Power 5 team would be a major accomplishment and would send the buzz around the football program into high gear before September even hits.
JMU football wins the national championship – The Dukes enter the season as a national title contender. Making the trip to Frisco for the third time in four years would cement the Dukes’ place among the FCS elite.
JMU men’s basketball makes the NCAA Tournament – JMU men’s basketball rarely finds itself in the Big Dance. Since the start of the 1994-95 season, the Dukes qualified for the tournament just once. JMU earned a 16 seed in 2013. If the Dukes make the NCAA Tournament in 2019-20, fan engagement will soar.
JMU women’s basketball makes the NCAA Tournament – This is a likely scenario. The Dukes enter 2019-20 as heavy CAA favorites. Regardless, an NCAA Tournament appearance sends a message that Sean O’Regan’s program is closing in on national relevance.
JMU softball makes the Women’s College World Series – Making the Women’s College World Series remains the goal for JMU softball. The Dukes possess the talent to do it in 2020, but need their pitching to step up with Megan Good gone to graduation and the professional ranks.
JMU lacrosse makes the Final Four – Making two Final Fours in three seasons would place JMU among the nation’s elite. Under Klaes-Bawcombe’s guidance, the Dukes are on the verge of becoming one of the top-5 programs in the entire country.
A realistic scenario
The 2019-20 season won’t be perfect for JMU athletics, as unexpected roadblocks, injuries and poor performances are a natural part of college athletics. Expecting greatness across the board might be a bit much, but realistically, the Dukes have at least three teams (football, lacrosse, softball) with top-10 potential on the national level. Winning an astounding 7-10 CAA titles is not an outlandish possibility, and several other teams (men’s soccer, volleyball and women’s basketball) may find their way into top-25 polls on the national level.
Even if JMU doesn’t reach its peak potential in 2019-20, it still might end up as the best year in the history of the athletic program.