Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications
By Jack Fitzpatrick and Bennett Conlin
Editor’s Note: Much of the information in this piece, especially for older athletes, was found on the JMU Sports Hall of Fame page. If you want more information on great JMU athletes, that’s a great resource.
Bennett: This was tough. We started this process by creating our individual lists and then texting each other our top 16 athletes. From there, we debated. We discussed stats, versatility, overall athleticism and national relevance.
Coming up with the best 16 athletes proved more difficult than I expected. We only shared five names from our first lists of 16. That left 11 spots for 22 athletes. We left off recent athletes like Bryan Schor, Jimmy Moreland and Jailyn Ford. It was a challenging process, especially with the great names of the past two decades. JMU has a rich athletic history, and narrowing a list of JMU athletes to 16 names isn’t easy.
I’m sure there will be names you feel we missed — that’s part of the fun. We want to hear who you think we should’ve included and why. This ranking isn’t official, and it’s meant to generate discussion. I hope you enjoy discussing these rankings as much as we enjoyed making them.
Editor’s note: The 16 athletes aren’t ranked, but rather separated by time period. We grouped the 16 athletes into four groups, or regions, for voting purposes. We’re going to run a series of Twitter polls for head-to-head matchups between the different athletes in each region and continue with the winners until only one athlete remains. We wanted this article to be used as a resource during voting.
The Original Greats
By Bennett Conlin
Our first region looks at some of the first Dukes to ever star at Madison. These four athletes all played between the years of 1969 and 1978. Two of these athletes made national teams, while another went on to play baseball professionally and another eventually returned to Harrisonburg to coach. It’s an accomplished region.
Alan Mayer (Men’s soccer and tennis, 1970-73)
JMU’s first male athlete to earn All-American honors, Alan Mayer was a two-sport standout. Meyer played both soccer and tennis, with soccer being his best sport. He was so good, in fact, that he played on the U.S. Men’s National Team as a goalkeeper in both 1977 and 1981.
At JMU, he earned All-Virginia Intercollegiate Soccer Association honors from 1970-73. He tallied 24 shutouts, including 11 in one season and five in a row at one point. He was an elite goalie, earning MVP of the Major Indoor Soccer League in 1983.
His tennis days were also impressive. Mayer lettered in all four seasons in both tennis and soccer and was a three-time team MVP of the Dukes’ tennis team. He earned that honor four times for the soccer squad.
Mayer makes our list because he’s a two-sport athlete who excelled nationally at soccer. He played professionally and made the national team. He’s not well known among the younger generation, but if Mayer played during the social media age, he’d be one of the most famous athletes in school history. He’s a JMU legend.
Sherman Dillard (Men’s basketball, 1974-78)
Differentiating between the top JMU men’s basketball players is tough, but Dillard is certainly within the top few men’s basketball Dukes. The program’s first 2,000-point scorer, Dillard holds four of the Dukes’ top-10 individual scoring games in history. He averaged a solid 20.7 points in his career.
He broke a school record for most points scored in a season his freshman year, and he’s tied for the JMU career lead with 10, 30-point games. He did shoot a lot, which explains some of his records. In the history of JMU men’s basketball, nobody has taken more shots than Sherman Dillard.
Dillard earned AP Honorable Mention four times, and won a CAA Coach of the Year award with JMU in 2000. Dillard’s scoring ability, and commitment to JMU, make him one of the best 16 Dukes of all time.
Dillard’s scoring all came without the three-point line, too. The line wasn’t added to the college game until 1986. (Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly said the three-point line was added to the college game in 1979. The NBA added the line in 1979 and several conferences experimented with the line starting in the early 1980s, but it didn’t become the norm until 1986.) If he had the three-point line, Dillard likely would’ve scored a good bit more than he did, considering he was one of the better free-throw shooters in program history.
Billy Sample (Baseball, 1973-77)
Probably the best baseball player in JMU history, Billy Sample excelled during his time at JMU and in the pros. Sample finished his JMU career with a .388 career batting average and earned All-American honors in 1976 with a .421 batting average.
He got drafted in 1976 and eventually played professionally from 1978-86. He spent time with the Texas Rangers, New York Yankees and Atlanta Braves. He stole 42 bases in a single season and finished his MLB career with a .272 batting average.
At JMU, Sample ranks third in career batting average and 10th in triples. He was consistently the best player on his team in terms of batting average and stolen bases. He’s one of the few Diamond Dukes to ever play in the majors, and he’s arguably the best of the bunch.
Sample makes this list as one of the best baseball players to ever come through JMU.
Dee McDonough (Field hockey and lacrosse, 1969-73)
Dee McDonough did it all. The two-sport athlete played on the U.S. National Team for both field hockey and lacrosse. Making two national teams is an incredible accomplishment.
McDonough started for three seasons on JMU’s field hockey team and four seasons for the lacrosse team. According to JMU’s Hall of Fame page, McDonough didn’t start playing lacrosse until her freshman year of college. Yes, she made a national team despite only picking up the sport in college.
While hardly any JMU fans discuss McDonough today, her versatility and overall excellence in two sports easily put her on this list.
The Legends of the ’80s and Early ’90s
By Jack Fitzpatrick
Stretching from 1981-1994, this group is loaded. This group includes two of the best football players in program history and JMU’s first Olympian.
Charles Haley (Football, 1982-85)
The player with the second most super bowl rings all time isn’t Joe Montana or Steve Young or even Troy Aikman. It is a JMU alumnus who made his living mauling them in the backfield, Charles Haley. Before Haley was cementing his spot on the San Franciso 49ers and later the Dallas Cowboys’ defensive line, he was an under-recruited kid from Gladys, Virginia.
Haley came to JMU in 1982 and during his four-year career racked up 506 tackles, a program record, he was JMU’s defensive MVP three times, an All-American in 1985 and was the JMU male athlete of the year for the 1985-86 season. He was the first CAA player to be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame and was JMU’s first, and so far only player, to be inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame.
Gary Clark (Football, 1980-83)
Gary Clark became the first JMU player to be drafted by a professional team when the Jacksonville Bulls of the United States Football League (USFL) took him in 1984. After his stint in the USFL, Clark quickly found his way to the NFL and his hometown team, the Washington Redskins.
During his time at JMU, he became a prolific pass catcher for the Dukes. He was the team’s offensive MVP twice and the male athlete of the year for the 1984-85 season.
Clark is fourth all-time in career receptions with 155, second in all-time reception yards with 2,863, averaging over 18 yards per reception during his Dukes career. He finished his career ranked in the top-five of three other all-time statistical categories. Clark was inducted into the Redskins Ring of Honor and is known as one of the 70 best Redskins.
Floretta Jackson (Women’s basketball, 1984-87)
Before the Kenny Brooks era of women’s basketball and stars like Tamera Young, Kirby Burkholder and Precious Hall graced the floor of the convocation center, 1998 JMU Hall of Fame inductee Floretta Jackson put the program on the map. During her four seasons, the Dukes had a 90-30 record, a top 20 national ranking, two CAA championships and two “Sweet 16” trips.
Outside of JMU, Jackson was the co-captain of the 1985 junior national team in the FIBA World Championships as well as the co-captain of the silver-medalist East Team at the 1985 U.S. Olympic Festival. Jackson finished her career as the all-time assist leader with 560, second all-time in steals at 253 and racked up 1,111 career points.
Juli Speights Benson (Track and field and cross country, 1991-1994)
The first JMU Olympian. Need I say more?
Juli Speights Benson was a distance runner for the Dukes and was also JMU’s first female athlete to earn Division I All-America honors in track. Benson competed in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics after she qualified by placing second at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field trials in ‘96. In 1997 she took home the bronze medal at the IAAF International Grand Prix.
During Benson’s four years she racked up accolades across the board, representing the U.S. as well as JMU. She took home the 1992-93 JMU Female Athlete of the Year award and was cemented into JMU sports history when she was inducted into the 2002 class of the JMU Hall of Fame.
The Underappreciated Legends (1990s and 2000s)
By Bennett Conlin
This region might be the strongest, and most underrated, of them all. Williamson and Young are JMU legends who hold a few program records that may take a few decades to be broken. They’re both accomplished players with a track record for winning.
Thate and Wheatcroft make this region special. Both can make a legitimate case for the title of best JMU athlete of all time. Thate is by far the most accomplished field hockey player in program history, and she helped JMU win its first national title in 1994. She also owns a bronze medal from both the 1996 and 2000 Olympic Games. Wheatcroft dominated archery on a national level before passing away from brain cancer in 2003. He was just 21 and on his way to becoming one of the most decorated archers to ever live.
Carole Thate (Field hockey, 1992-95)
If you don’t know about Carole Thate, it’s time to learn. She led JMU field hockey to a national title in 1994 and a national semifinal in 1995. Thate won Honda’s honor as the best player in the country in 1995. To compare her to a recent athlete, she’s Megan Good with a national title and two Olympic medals to her name.
She led the country in scoring for three seasons and won two Bronze medals at the Olympics with the Netherlands national team. She was one of the world’s best field hockey players during her time.
How unreal are her JMU stats? Check out JMU’s career goal scoring leaders.
Sandy Wilson ended her JMU career with an impressive 64 goals. She may have expected the record to last for years. Then Carole Thate came in and blew the record to smithereens. Remember Taylor West, the extremely talented player from this decade? Thate more than doubled West’s career goals scored.
She wasn’t just a scorer. Thate is tied for the program lead with 36 career assists. In total, she helped account for 152 goals. She leads the program with an unbelievable 31 game-winning goals. She tied the program record for goals in a game (5) on three separate occasions. Her 268 career points put her 125 points ahead of Sandy Wilson, who sits in second place.
Thate wasn’t just good, she was dominant. Her dominance helped her team win JMU’s first national championship in any sport. She’s special.
Ashley Williamson (Women’s soccer, 1992-95)
Williamson joins this list as one of the best women’s soccer players in JMU history. She’s one of three Dukes to ever score four goals in a game, and her 19 goals in a season are the most ever by a Duke. Her 55 career goals still lead the program.
Only one JMU women’s soccer player has ever eclipsed the 50-goal threshold, and it’s Williamson. She holds an 11-goal lead over Corky Julien, who sits at No. 2 on the list. Williamson’s 128 career points sit atop the record books by 26 points over the next closest Duke.
She knew how to score, and she stepped up in her senior season. Williamson scored 19 goals and tallied 46 points in a program-record 25 starts as a senior. By stepping up in crucial moments, Williamson helped lead the Dukes to a 1995 CAA title and Round of 16 appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
Williamson, the best women’s soccer player in program history, deserves a place on this list.
Adam Wheatcroft (Archery, 2001-03)
Adam Wheatcroft is arguably the most underappreciated athlete in the history of JMU athletics. An archer, Wheatcroft’s athletic career and life were tragically cut short when he died of brain cancer in 2003. He won the U.S. Intercollegiate Championship on May 18, 2003. He received the cancer diagnosis on May 25. He died on October 28. The tragedy sent shockwaves through the archery world.
Before his death, the 21-year-old absolutely destroyed his competition. He won two individual national titles with JMU (2001 and 2003) and earned All-American honors three times. He won the compound bow World Championship individual title in 2002. He won three individual gold medals in three U.S. World Team competitions. He spent four years on the U.S. Junior team before joining the U.S. National Team in 2001 and 2002.
Wheatcroft wasn’t just an elite collegiate archer. Wheatcroft was one of the best archers in the world by his 20th birthday. He had the talent, work ethic and proven success to win Olympic medals.
Researching Wheatcroft hurts. It’s hard to read about one of the most dominant young athletes in the world losing his life at 21 years old to a terrible disease. By all accounts, Wheatcroft was a tremendous person and teammate. He supported his peers and worked on his own game to become of the best archers in the world.
Wheatcroft is the best JMU athlete you’ve never heard about.
Tamera Young (Women’s basketball, 2005-08)
Tamera Young is one of two women’s basketball players on the list. While she’s third on the JMU all-time scoring list with 2,121 career points, she’s second in career rebounds and first in steals. Young is an all around talent.
At the professional level, Young is still rolling. Currently a member of the Las Vegas Aces, Young is in her 12th WNBA season. She’s played in over 350 games with over 200 starts, and she’s eclipsed 2,500 points, 1,300 rebounds and 250 steals in the professional ranks. She’s been a top women’s basketball player for over a decade.
Young was selected eighth in the 2008 WNBA Draft, which is the best mark in the history of the program. She was also the first Duke ever selected to play in the league, which started in 1996.
She won CAA Player of the Year in her senior season, and Young helped the Dukes go 93-34 in her four seasons. She started 125 games in her career, which means she started 125 of a possible 127 games played. Young is a JMU basketball legend.
The Recent Stars
By Jack Fitzpatrick
These players likely sit fresh in the minds of JMU Nation. These Dukes are elite talents, and many of them still have ongoing professional careers.
Dawn Evans (Women’s basketball, 2008-2011)
Dawn Evans has gone down in JMU women’s basketball lore. One of the staples of the Kenny Brooks era, Evans was a gifted scorer who could take over the game and leave the rest of the CAA in the dust.
She holds one of the best individual scoring performances in school history with 42 points, she did that against UVA, she also broke Tamera Young’s career points record — Young had 2,121 and Evans reached 2,667. She also holds the record for the most career points for any CAA player.
Evans holds almost every points-related record for JMU and is known for her prolific scoring. She’s the prototypical Kenny Brooks style of player.
CJ Sapong (Men’s soccer, 2007-10)
One of the most successful JMU men’s soccer players in the program’s history, CJ Sapong made a career out of breaking down CAA defenses with ease. During Sapong’s time at JMU, he was a four-year starter, he was named CAA Preseason Player of the Year and CAA Player of the Year and he was a team captain.
He was also one of the Dukes most potent offensive threats. He finished his career fourth all-time in game-winning goals with 12, fifth in points with 95 and seventh in goals with 37. Sapong made a name for himself right away, leading the team in points and goals in his freshman year.
After his four years at JMU, Sapong went on to be, and still is, a standout Major League Soccer player, earning rookie of the year honors in 2011 after being taken 10th overall in the draft (the highest any JMU player has been selected) and in 2012 would make two appearances with the U.S. National Team.
Kristen Gaudian (Lacrosse, 2014-18)
From 2014, when Kristen Gaudian was just a walk-on, to 2018 when she was a Teewaaraton Award Finalist, Gaudian helped lead the Dukes to the first national championship in lacrosse program history.
Gaudian was the front man in 2018 on a team littered with talent across the board. She was the CAA Player of the Year and the VaSID Player of the Year. She was on the NCAA Championship All-Tournament Team and was First Team All-CAA — just to name a few awards she took home in 2018.
She finished her career at JMU ranked in the top-15 in four different offensive statistical categories. She ranked first in free-position goals (47), seventh in career goals (146), 13th in career points (170) and 14th in draw controls (108).
Megan Good (Softball, 2014-19)
What can be said that hasn’t already? She’s the best player in JMU softball history, and it isn’t even close.
She was the NFCA Player of the Year in 2017 and was a USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year top-3 finalist in 2019, yet somehow was on the NFCA All-America Third Team(?) … She finished her career with an unreal ERA of 1.03 (for a majority of her career it was sub-1), she had double the amount of strikeouts than hits allowed, and she finished her career with a dominating 120-17 record.
She made her name in the batter’s box as well. She finished her career with a batting average of .351 with 45 home runs, a .612 slugging and a .438 on-base percentage. Wherever Good lined up she was lethal, she made CAA batters and pitchers look foolish game in and game out and almost willed this 2019 squad to the Women’s College World Series — UCLA and Rachel Garcia had other plans.
She was taken 10th overall in the National Pro Fastpitch draft and was paired up with former teammate Jailyn Ford with the USSSA Pride.
Editor’s note: Who did we miss? What’s your list of the 16 best athletes in program history? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.