The Curious Case of JMU Baseball

Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications

By Bennett Conlin

JMU baseball’s 2023 season came to an end Thursday, with the Dukes losing 8-7 to Appalachian State in a compelling Sun Belt Conference Tournament elimination game. With the year over, it brings us to what’s becoming an annual question in Harrisonburg: What should we make of the JMU baseball program?

On one hand, JMU won 30+ games this season. The Dukes swept Louisiana. They took three of four games against Old Dominion, including an opening-round conference tournament game to fight off elimination. The Dukes won more Sun Belt games (16) than they lost (15).

On the other hand, Marlin Ikenberry completed his eighth season as JMU’s head coach. The Dukes have never made an NCAA Regional under his leadership, having now fallen short of the postseason as a program every year since 2011. JMU earned 18 of its wins against teams in Quad 4 of the RPI, posting a losing record against Quad 1, Quad 2, and Quad 3 teams. That’s not ideal.

Let’s break down the curious case of JMU baseball.

Decent 2023 season

I was pleasantly surprised with the finish to JMU baseball’s season. The Dukes played decent baseball in April and May, even if they ended the year with five losses in their final seven games. JMU, for much of the late season, looked the part of a middle-of-the-road SBC squad. That’s not horrible, given the quality of play in the conference.

JMU also hung reasonably tough with elite teams. The Dukes took one of three games from Coastal Carolina, and swept a solid Louisiana program. JMU led Virginia Tech in the eighth inning before falling to the Hokies 7-5, and JMU nearly upset Virginia in a 9-8 loss. At times, they looked like an NCAA Tournament team.

Additionally, JMU expects to return a number of key contributors in 2024. Hits and home runs leader Fenwick Trimble is a Power Five talent, and he was just a sophomore in 2023. Jason Schiavone grew tremendously as a batter in 2023, and he’s a rising junior as well. Freshman Mike Mancini is another solid hitter set to return.

On the mound, JMU’s top six pitchers in terms of innings pitched have eligibility remaining for 2024. The Dukes have reason for optimism entering 2024.

8 years of average play

2023 wasn’t a disaster, but it’s hard to describe Marlin Ikenberry’s eight seasons at JMU as anything other than average. The Dukes’ 31-25 record matches the 2019 season as the most wins of the Ikenberry era. That’s not overly impressive.

JMU is 184-184 under Ikenberry, going 75-87 in league games. That’s … not great. Dating back to his time at VMI, Ikenberry has never led a team to an NCAA Regional in 19 seasons as a head coach.

In conference tournament games, Ikenberry’s teams are 4-17, including a 2-6 record at JMU. He’s never won a conference tournament title or a regular season title. Sure, 2023 wasn’t all bad! But most JMU coaches aren’t given a decade to try to make an NCAA Tournament appearance, especially in a sport that includes a 64-team NCAA Tournament.

JMU failed to beat the best of the best in 2023, going 1-9 against teams in the top 50 of the RPI. JMU went 11-12 against teams ranked 50-100, and 1-2 against teams ranked 101-150. Of JMU’s wins, a whopping 18 of them came against teams with an RPI of 197th or worse. JMU beat up on bad teams, going 18-2 against Quad 4 teams.

In Year 8 of a head coach’s tenure, it’d be ideal to see more consistent success against teams in the NCAA Tournament picture. JMU was 12-21 against teams in the top 100 of the RPI.

Program expectations should rise

JMU has put together incredible athletic success in recent years for a non-Power Five program. Men’s soccer made an Elite Eight in 2018. Football was an FCS powerhouse before a superb FBS leap in 2022. Men’s basketball has taken notable strides under Mark Byington, moving closer to an NIT or NCAA Tournament berth.

On the women’s side, the softball team made the 2021 Women’s College World Series, winning twice in Oklahoma City. Women’s basketball won the Sun Belt last season, making the NCAA Tournament. The women’s tennis team has been a consistent conference title threat over the last five seasons, as is volleyball, soccer, golf, swimming and field hockey, which is soon to join the MAC.

Heck, JMU women’s tennis coach Shelley Jaudon just accepted the head coaching gig at Kentucky. She was a home-run hire.

Oh, and lacrosse WON THE 2018 NATIONAL TITLE. The lacrosse team is arguably JMU’s best program, consistently competing nationally under Shelley Klaes.

JMU’s department wide athletic success is remarkable.

Unfortunately, the baseball program hasn’t matched that success. The team hasn’t made an NCAA Regional since 2011, and it hasn’t won more than 35 games since that 2011 season. The group hasn’t finished third or better in a conference regular season race since 2011.

JMU’s athletic department is largely thriving, but baseball needs to improve.

The Shenandoah Valley loves baseball. The community would rally around a competitive JMU team. The Sun Belt also loves baseball and softball. If JMU wants to be the best athletic department in the Sun Belt, the Dukes need to have a baseball program that makes NCAA Regionals on a more regular basis.

Given the Dukes’ resources and department-wide goals, the expectations need to go above winning 25-30 games in a season.

Small contracts not sustainable

I clearly have my doubts about Marlin Ikenberry’s future leading JMU baseball, but I also trust Jeff Bourne’s decisions. He has a history of making solid hires (hiring Mike Houston, Curt Cignetti, Shelley Jaudon, etc.), albeit with occasional missteps (the Louis Rowe era fell short of expectations).

I don’t know the clubhouse feelings on Ikenberry or every internal working of JMU’s athletic department. The dude might be beloved. He might be on the brink of turning JMU into a monster. I don’t know! I’m on the outside.

If Bourne believes in Ikenberry, that’s fine! But the AD can’t keep giving out one and two-year contract extensions. Bourne extended Ike two years this offseason. Prior to that, he issued one-year extensions in 2020 and 2021.

How can any coach build a sustainable program on small deals like that? Why would any recruit feel comfortable committing to a program that only trusts a coach in 1-2 year increments?

Judging by Bourne’s tiny contract extensions for Ikenberry, he also has some doubts about the coach.

If Bourne retains Ikenberry for the second year of his current two-year deal (I’m more than fine with that since the Dukes showed promise in 2023), the plan should be to either move on after the 2024 season or issue Ikenberry a 3+ year deal if the Dukes perform well (make an NCAA Regional or get very, very close) in 2024.

It’s time to stop with the small extensions and either fully commit to multiple seasons of Ikenberry leading JMU in the SBC or find another head coach capable of making an NCAA Regional. And it’s beyond time for Ikenberry to lead the Dukes to an NCAA Regional.

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