Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications
By Bennett Conlin
JMU softball is good.
If you’re familiar with the program, that’s no surprise. The Dukes have been competitive nationally for about a decade, and this year’s team is impressive.
If you’re new to the JMU softball bandwagon, let’s cover the JMU softball basics. And welcome! Few things beat the intensity of high-level college softball.
JMU softball became a Division I program in 2002. Katie Flynn led the program, which was competitive within the CAA, until the 2013 season.
That’s when Mickey Dean (now currently at Auburn) took over the program. He led the Dukes from 2013-17, and he turned a good program into a great one.
Flynn led the Dukes to one NCAA Regional.
Dean led them to five in his five seasons, including one Super Regional apperance in 2016. The Dukes hosted LSU for the Super Regional and won the first game of the three-game series. As a young sports reporter for The Breeze, I watched as LSU barely beat out the Dukes for a spot in the College World Series.
The Dukes were special that season.
This season, JMU is led by Loren LaPorte. She was an assistant under Dean and took over the program in 2018. JMU made a Super Regional in 2019 under LaPorte’s watch.
In 2021, JMU is 34-1. The Dukes are unseeded CAA champions, and they’ll head to Tennessee hoping for their third Super Regional apperance since 2016.
Knoxville Regional foes
No. 9 Tennessee will host the Regional. The Vols are an SEC team, which means they’re a lock to advance out of the Regional. Sorry, Dukes.
Wait, sorry. I was looking at the notes the NCAA selection committee sent me.
The Vols are good, but this should be a competitive Regional. Liberty is a ranked team and Eastern Kentucky had a strong regular-season, including one competitive showing against Tennessee.
Tennessee, understandably as the seeded team, is the favorite to advance.
The Vols went 41-13 this season and 12-11 in the highly competitive SEC. Five players hit over .300, and two players have at least 10 home runs.
There’s speed on the bases, especially with Kiki Milloy. She’s 36-38 on stolen bases and hitting .364. When Milloy gets on, she’s able to score. She leads the team with 48 runs scored.
Ashley Rogers makes Tennessee scary. The pitcher tossed 200 innings this spring, sporting a 1.26 ERA and striking out 278 batters. If the Dukes have to face Rogers, they’re likely going to need to win a low-scoring affair.
The Flames finished the season with a 42-13 record and a 16-2 mark in the ASUN. Unlike JMU, Liberty has played the best of the best this season.
Liberty faced Alabama, LSU, Oklahoma State, Tennessee and Oklahoma this spring. While the Flames haven’t had much success against those teams, they know what to expect this weekend.
Two solid pitchers lead the Flames’ rotation. Emily Kirby is the most dynamic with a 1.82 ERA and 137 strikeouts across 131 innings. We’d expect JMU to see her Friday at noon.
Offensively, three players have at least 35 RBIs. The Bishops, Amber and Autumn, are the two best hitters in the lineup. The twin sisters from California are the two hitters that should worry opponents.
It’s hard to envision EKU contending in this Regional, but the Colonels had a good season. They went 35-15 and 22-9 in the Ohio Valley.
Sammi Miller paces the team with a .419 average, and Carly Robinson is an impressive power hitter.
Pitching could be the team’s undoing, as EKU doesn’t have anyone with an ERA under 2.00.
Why is JMU so good?
I mentioned JMU’s 34-1 record.
I haven’t yet mentioned that the team has recorded seven consecutive shutouts, outscoring opponents 58-0 during that span. I didn’t mention that Kate Gordon hit a leadoff home run in every CAA Tournament game. She hit two homers in each game, giving her a record six home runs for the tournament.
JMU won the CAA title with a 17-0, five-inning win over Delaware.
Why exactly is the team so good?
Experience and talent.
JMU brought back a massive chunk of its senior class thanks to an additional year of eligibility given by the NCAA. That meant the return of stars like Kate Gordon and Odicci Alexander. Madison Naujokas was an important returner as well, as she’s one of the best hitters in the lineup and an elite fielder at second base.
A few stud redshirt juniors — Sara Jubas, Logan Newton and Lynsey Meeks — help complete the lineup.
Alexander is a star in the lineup, and she’s the team’s ace. Add in redshirt freshman Alissa Humphrey, who has four no-hitters this spring, and JMU is solid in the circle. Alexis Bermudez stepped up in the circle when Alexander missed weeks with injury, going 9-1 and sporting a 2.13 ERA.
The team’s pitching is the best in the CAA by far. In fact, it’s one of the best mid-major pitching staffs in the country. We’ll see how it fares against an offense like Liberty’s and potentially Tennessee’s.
With an elite lineup as well, it’s easy to understand why the Dukes demolished the teams on its easy schedule.
JMU has a handful of players who would make significant impacts at the Power 5 level. Many of those players have years of experience. That’s a dangerous combination.
Can the Dukes advance out of the Regional?
It doesn’t mean JMU will advance, but the Dukes are capable. It’s a double-elimination format, which makes it an interesting weekend.
The Dukes play Liberty on Friday at noon on ESPNU. The winner of that game likely faces Tennessee (assuming it beats EKU) on Saturday. Should the Dukes beat Liberty and Tennessee, they’ll advance to Sunday only needing one win to make the Super Regionals.
If JMU loses to Liberty, it would likely face EKU in an elimination game Saturday before then facing the loser of Tennessee-Liberty later on Saturday in an elimination game.
If JMU beats Liberty but loses to Tennessee on Saturday, which is arguably the most likely situation, it would play an elimination game Saturday night. The Dukes would need a win there and then two consecutive wins against Tennessee on Sunday to advance.
The scenarios can be confusing to type out, but the main thing you need to know is that winning Friday is key. If the Dukes can’t get by Liberty in the opener, it means they need to win two elimination games Saturday and two elimination games Sunday. It wouldn’t be shocking if two of those came against Tennessee. That path is not a road that leads to success.
Winning Friday does NOT guarantee success the rest of the way, though.
Tennessee is the toughest out in the region. Beating the Vols and Rogers is a major challenge. JMU needs to be exceptional all weekend to advance out of Knoxville. A win Friday against Liberty feels like a necessity, rather than an advantage.
Getting to Saturday with a 1-0 record would give JMU a shot against Tennessee in a non-elimination game with Odicci Alexander likely in the circle. We like that scenario a lot.
Can JMU make the College World Series?
It’s going to be phenomenally hard to advance out of Knoxville. If the Dukes can do that, however, they certainly have a shot to make the CWS.
The winner of the Knoxville Regional likely would face No. 8 Missouri. The Tigers are a solid bunch, but if the Dukes can get past No. 9 Tennessee, there’s no reason they can’t give Missouri a run for its money, too.
JMU beat No. 15 Michigan in the 2019 Regional. While the win was incredible, it meant facing eventual national champion and No. 2 seed UCLA in the Super Regional. That didn’t go well, as the Dukes were swept in the best-of-three series.
If JMU isn’t able to host a Regional or Super Regional in a season, playing the No. 9 seed and then possibly the No. 8 seed is by far the best matchup path for the Dukes to make program history and advance to the College World Series for the first time.
For those who like to dream, it’s easy to get excited about how the bracket looks.
Can JMU win the national title??
The Dukes are really good. They aren’t national title contenders.
The top few teams nationally are shockingly good and battle tested this spring, and it’s hard to see JMU having enough firepower in the circle or in the lineup to actually make any sort of run at a national title, especially after not playing top-25 caliber teams at all this season.
If JMU makes the College World Series, it would likely face top-seeded Oklahoma in Oklahoma City.
Advancing to a Super Regional would be a huge success. Making the CWS would be historic. Winning the College World Series? For now, that’s just a dream.
Maybe one day!
What to expect this weekend
Extremely competitive softball. The Knoxville Regional might be the most competitve of all 16 regions.
JMU should be in the mix to advance. Buckle up for a fun weekend.