Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications
By Bennett Conlin
For years, JMU softball knocked on the door to the Women’s College World Series. Finally, in 2021, the Dukes burst onto the national scene behind a team of talented veterans.
Odicci Alexander became a national star in the circle, leading the Dukes with superb individual plays and remarkable consistency against the nation’s top hitters. Sara Jubas thrived in clutch situations, delivering key hits in timely spots. Kate Gordon showcased her home-run power throughout the postseason, and came up big when JMU needed her.
Plenty of other players shined for JMU, which used a complete team effort to not only make it to Oklahoma City, but win multiple games in the WCWS.
With last season behind it, JMU softball looks to build on its historic accomplishment. What should fans expect from the Dukes in 2022?
We’ll preview the softball squad, which begins its season Saturday at Charlotte, and the baseball team, which starts play Friday at Florida State.
Throw away expectations, softball fans
JMU needed firepower to make the WCWS, and a lot of the players who provided that firepower are gone this season. Alexander, Jubas, and Gordon have all moved on from the program, with Gordon and Alexander graduating out of college softball. Jubas will play for North Carolina, using a final season of eligibility while she attends pharmacy school at UNC.
Several other contributors, like Logan Newton, Madison Naujokas, and Lynsey Meeks are also no longer a part of the JMU program. The Dukes had a ton of athletes in their final years of eligibility, and their absence this season means JMU has an extremely young team.
That’s not to say JMU doesn’t return talent. Sophomore pitcher Alissa Humphrey 14-0 with a 1.56 ERA for the Dukes last year, and she’s ready to move into the No. 1 role for JMU. She doesn’t have the velocity that Alexander had, but she’s deadly accurate and can change speeds and spins well.
Alexis Bermudez, the likely No. 2 pitcher, went 9-1 with a 2.13 ERA a season ago. Bermudez is a Bethune-Cookman transfer entering her fifth season of collegiate softball. She’s experienced, and while she isn’t much of a strikeout pitcher, she can record outs and gives the staff some depth behind Humphrey.
Having a historic season usually means the team had historically good players on the team. You can’t replace Alexander, Gordon, and Jubas overnight, but that doesn’t mean JMU is due to struggle in 2022. It does mean, however, that expectations from fans should be lowered or thrown away.
Making an NCAA Regional as an at-large selection — JMU is banned from the CAA Tournament — would be a strong accomplishment for this young team. Enjoy whatever this year brings, as gearing up to be a Sun Belt contender in future seasons is the most important program objective.
Who steps up?
The good news for JMU is that losing a bunch of stars opens the door for young athletes to take advantage of increased opportunity. While JMU isn’t a national title threat this spring, the Dukes could build the foundation to become a national title contender in the years ahead.
A few returners with years of collegiate experience are also expected to have more opportunity this spring. Hallie Hall, a redshirt junior, has been with the program since 2019. She received meaningful at-bats last spring, and she’s capable of making a noticeable leap forward.
Keep an eye on Emily Phillips and Reed Butler, a pair of redshirt sophomores that head coach Loren LaPorte has told local media she expects to contribute in the lineup this year. As for the freshmen, it’s hard to know what to expect. JMU lists nine freshmen on its roster, and I’d expect several to be given opportunities to earn starting roles.
Your guess for who steps up is probably as good as mine, but one name I want to watch in future seasons is Kylee Gleason. The South Carolina transfer is just a sophomore, and she was named the 2020 South Carolina High School Gatorade Player of the Year. Gleason recorded four multi-hit games in somewhat limited action last year, and three of the performances came against SEC competition.
Baseball team seeks direction
The softball program is headed in a positive direction. It’s harder to say the same about the baseball program, which hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2011.
Under Marlin Ikenberry, whose first season as head coach came in 2016, the Dukes have been average. They haven’t been dreadful by any means, but they haven’t finished better than fourth in the CAA, and the program certainly hasn’t been a threat to make an NCAA Tournament run like their softball counterparts.
If Ikenberry is JMU’s long-term solution at head coach, 2022 needs to be a strong season for the Dukes. And there’s reason to believe it could be a stellar season.
JMU has Chase DeLauter, considered one of the best college prospects in the country. The slugger, who also pitches occasionally, hits .385 for his career. The redshirt sophomore has seven home runs and 35 RBIs in 169 at-bats for the Dukes. He’s also walked 34 times and swiped 14 bases.
DeLauter is a feared hitter with effortless power, and he’s the best player on the team. He’s far from the only solid hitter, though. Trevon Dabney, Carson Bell, Travis Reifsnider, Nick Zona, and Kyle Novak are all familiar names with ability.
JMU’s lineup could be special in 2022, as the Dukes return a bunch of contributors from a lineup that averaged 6.3 runs per game last year.
The pitching plan
I’m not sure Ikenberry’s plan for the pitching staff inspires confidence in most fans, as the head coach recently told the media he plans to use multiple guys as “starters” in each game.
The plan is essentially to designate an A and a B starter for each game. Friday night at Florida State, Justin Showalter will likely get the ball first as Friday’s A starter. Once he goes through FSU’s lineup twice, Ikenberry will pull Showalter for whoever Friday’s B starter happens to be. Then, it’s up to the B starter and the bullpen to finish the job.
The plan was made in part because the Dukes haven’t played a full season each of the last two years, and Ikenberry wants his staff to get through the full 56-game slate without injury issues and fatigue concerns. The other side of the equation is that typically pitchers are most successful during the first or second time through a lineup. Data at most levels of baseball suggests a third trip through a lineup can lead to trouble. That logic makes sense, but how successful can a team really be against good competition when it’s leaning so heavily on its bullpen? Only time will tell.
The bottom line
JMU softball provided fans with endless entertainment in 2021 as the Dukes made it to Oklahoma City and captivated people across the country. With such a young team, expectations should be lower, but it’ll be interesting to see how the Dukes handle success as a program and gear up for future WCWS runs.
As for the baseball team, the time is now for an Ikenberry-led team to make a legitimate push at an NCAA Tournament appearance. If a team with Chase DeLauter on the roster can’t make the postseason, Athletic Director Jeff Bourne might look to shake things up.