Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications
By Bennett Conlin
Fall sports start tomorrow, with women’s soccer hosting a nationally ranked Georgetown squad. With the Dukes hitting the field across a variety of sports, I wanted to take a quick look at each of JMU’s fall athletic programs and share what fans should look for this season.
It’s shaping up to be a strong fall season for JMU across the board, and teams outside of the football program deserve their fair share of media attention in coming months. The Dukes’ programs are strong, and this fall might set the table for one of the best overall seasons in JMU history.
2018 CAA Finish – 5th
The Star – Caitlin Swanson. It’s hard to pinpoint one face of the program, but Swanson is one of the team’s best. The senior earned All-CAA honors as a sophomore, and she’s poised for a strong senior year. She’s one of the team’s most reliable runners.
The Strength – Coaching. The Dukes are coached by Dave Rinker, who enters his 20th season as JMU’s coach. He’s experienced and knows how to get the most out of his runners. With only two seniors on the roster, the young runners will benefit from Rinker’s advice.
The Weakness – Youth. The Dukes only have two seniors, so a handful of juniors and underclassmen need to step up. While winning a CAA title might be a stretch, the Dukes should improve in the coming seasons as the runners get used to competing at the CAA level.
The Skinny – A year after winning the conference title, JMU posted its worst CAA finish (fifth) in program history. The Dukes are almost always a top-3 finisher in the league, so there’s some disappointment after last season. Expect this young group to bounce back, though. There’s quality talent across the roster, and Rinker is a decorated coach. JMU’s cross country team will be just fine in the coming seasons.
2018 CAA Finish – 5th
The Star – Miranda Rigg. The Dukes sputtered to a 6-12 record in 2018 with Rigg nursing an injury. With Rigg entering her redshirt senior season, the Dukes should return to the top level of the CAA. She led the Dukes in goals and points during her sophomore season, and she has CAA Player of the Year potential.
The Strength – Talent. Despite a poor 2018 record, the Dukes’ roster is talented. With Rigg returning, and multiple underclassmen gaining critical experience last season, JMU’s roster looks solid on paper. Combined with the experience and success of head coach Christy Morgan, the Dukes expect to rebound.
The Weakness – The Dukes are unproven. How will they respond after a disappointing 2018 season? Are there any emotional scars after starting the year ranked nationally and then losing 2/3 of their games? The talent is there for a CAA title run, but the Dukes need to put 2018 behind them.
The Skinny – JMU’s 12 losses last season were its most since 2004, when JMU went 4-16. The Dukes haven’t won a CAA title since 2008, when they went 18-3 and finished the year ranked fourth nationally. This year’s team should finish with a winning record, and I think they’ll contend for a CAA title. The Dukes won’t be 2008 good, but they won’t be 2004 or 2018 bad either.
The record: I’ll say JMU finishes the regular season with an 11-7 record.
2018 CAA Finish: 2nd
The Star: Maybe Rashad Robinson? The Dukes don’t really have a face of the program, although Robinson or Ben DiNucci can make a case as the most recognizable player on the team. Ron’Dell Carter and John Daka are also tremendous players who receive frequent recognition.
The Strengths – Talent. The Dukes return almost everyone from a playoff team that spent much of the season in the FCS top 10. DiNucci returns at quarterback, and he’s surrounded by quality weapons and an experienced and deep offensive line. The defense has a chance to be the country’s best.
The Weaknesses – Defensive line depth. With Isaac Ukwu out for the season, the reserve defensive linemen are question marks. They’re all talented players, but the experience isn’t there after the starting four.
The Skinny – JMU football is absolutely loaded. The Dukes bring in head coach Curt Cignetti from Elon as they hope to maintain their recent levels of success. Anything less than an FCS Quarterfinal berth will be disappointing. Honestly, an FCS Quarterfinal berth might even be disappointing.
The record: 10-2. JMU’s schedule isn’t easy. The Dukes open at West Virginia before facing Chattanooga, Elon and Stony Brook all on the road. I see the Dukes dropping the opener to West Virginia and losing one CAA game before entering the postseason as a top-8 seed.
2018 CAA Finish – 1st (won CAA title as well)
The Star – Manuel Ferriol. He’s not just one of the CAA’s best, he’s also one of the nation’s best. The senior from Spain earned Second Team All-CAA honors last season after leading the Dukes in goals scored. He’s athletic, crafty and experienced. He gives JMU an elite midfielder.
The Strengths – Postseason experience. JMU made the Elite Eight last season and returns many key contributors in addition to Ferriol. TJ Bush is a proven goalkeeper, and the Dukes have eight seniors on the roster. JMU is stacked, and its roster knows how to win big games.
The Weaknesses – There’s an argument to be made that JMU’s attack can sometimes struggle, but that’s nitpicking. The Dukes’ defense led the way in 2018, but the team’s attackers are talented. It’s a team with few weaknesses.
The Skinny – JMU enters the season in the top 10-20 range nationally, depending on the poll. The Dukes are a fringe national title contender with a legitimate chance to make the Elite Eight again this season. Expect an NCAA appearance at the very least.
The record: 15-3. I’m being a bit cautious with this prediction, as the Dukes have the pieces to go undefeated against their schedule. A few tough games lead me to believe the regular season schedule hands JMU three losses.
2018 CAA Finish – 1st (Did not win CAA title)
The Star – Haley Crawford. Like Ferriol, Crawford is one of the nation’s best. She’s an elite scorer, finding the back of the net nine times in 2018. The Dukes will lean on her scoring to help lead them to a CAA title.
The Strength – Attack. With Crawford and Ginger Deel, the Dukes return two All-CAA performers at forward. JMU has solid attackers, which should make it one of the most dangerous attacks in the CAA.
The Weakness – Overall experience. The Dukes have 21 freshmen and sophomores, making their overall roster extremely young. Key seniors will lead the way, but the team’s lack of experienced depth jumps out as a potential weakness.
The Skinny – While being relatively young could hurt the Dukes at times in 2019, Crawford is a superstar. The senior class is strong, and JMU is going to contend for a CAA title. With such a young roster, the future is extremely bright as Josh Walters Sr. enters year No. 2 as head coach.
The Record – I expect JMU to go 12-7 during the regular season.
2018 CAA Finish – 2nd
The Star – M’Kaela White. The 6’4″ senior is a stud. She’s a great offensive and defensive player for the Dukes. The 2018 First Team All-CAA selection played for the USA Collegiate National Team this summer, and she’s likely to be among the nation’s top players this fall.
The Strengths – Depth. This roster is stacked. White is joined by Briley Brind’Amour and Sarah Martin as key returning seniors. The Dukes also added Karis Beasley, a graduate transfer from Auburn who played every set for the Tigers in 2017 and 2018. She’s a quality asset, and makes the Dukes even more dangerous. She also has two years of eligibility remaining, making her an even greater asset. It’s a great unit with talented juniors and sophomores as well.
The Weaknesses – Outside hitters. JMU lost Bryn Recker and Kelly Vahos to graduation, and it won’t be easy to fill that void. The Dukes need a few outside hitters to step up, as Martin and White should both post All-CAA caliber seasons in the middle of the court.
The Skinny – Lauren Steinbrecher is a great coach, and the Dukes’ roster is phenomenal. A CAA title is the goal, and winning an NCAA Tournament match is a real possibility if the Dukes qualify for the event.
The record: 20-6. The Dukes reach 20 regular season wins thanks to stellar play from White.
A few other teams will perform in the fall, but the teams listed above play their postseasons during the fall schedule. After looking through each roster, there’s a chance for JMU to grab 3-5 CAA titles this fall.
Football, volleyball and both soccer programs are likely CAA title favorites, while field hockey and cross country have enough pieces to make a run to the top of CAA. JMU sports start tomorrow, and the Dukes are poised for a massive fall.