Can Young Stars Lead JMU Softball Back to an NCAA Regional?

Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications

By Bennett Conlin

From 2013-21, JMU softball made an NCAA Regional every season. The Dukes appeared in three Super Regionals during that span, including punching a ticket to the Women’s College World Series in 2021.

In the two seasons since, JMU has endured numerous on-field challenges and a tragic death that impacted the program and entire JMU community. 

The Dukes understandably took a step back in 2022, losing Odicci Alexander, Kate Gordon, Sara Jubas and several other standouts from the 2021 WCWS team. 

Toward the end of the 2022 season, starting catcher Lauren Bernett died. Her death led to the cancellation of the remainder of JMU’s season, as the players grieved the loss of their close friend and beloved team leader. 

In 2023, the Dukes deserve tremendous credit for showing up and improving. JMU finished the year 28-19 overall and 13-11 in Sun Belt play, its first year in the competitive softball conference. While the Dukes fell short of an NCAA Regional, they competed hard and played admirably in their first season following tragedy. The players and coaches deserve major props for that. 

Entering 2024, the Dukes roster looks the part of an NCAA Regional squad, even with Hannah Shiflett graduated. In theory, the team should be adjusted to life in the Sun Belt and ready to put together a strong season in the highly competitive conference. The easy-to-root-for team and program should quickly become fan favorites this spring.

The season begins on Feb. 9, when the Dukes face Ball State and Jacksonville. 

Editor’s note: Thanks to Three Notch’d Brewing for their advertising support this season.

Key returners

KK Mathis, INF – Just a sophomore, Mathis led JMU with 41 RBIs as a true freshman. She also smacked 12 home runs and batted .336, a team-best batting average. Mathis is one of the most talented players in the Sun Belt, and she’s expected to be a key contributor in 2024 and beyond.  

Kylee Gleason, OF – The former South Carolina player performed well for JMU in 2023, batting .328 and going a perfect 5-5 on steals. Gleason has range in the outfield and figures to play a role in the lineup, given her speed and ability to hit above .300. Gleason is a senior.

Jasmine Hall, OF – A junior, Hall drove in 31 RBIs and hit eight home runs in 2023, both were third-best on the team. She also hit 11 doubles, second-best on the team. Strikeouts were an issue for Hall last spring, as she fanned a team-high 30 times. There’s room to improve, but through two college seasons, Hall’s talent at the plate is obvious. She’s a likely starter.

Hallie Hall, INF – Hall returns to JMU in 2024 for her sixth season of college softball. She played a key role on the team in 2022 and 2023, hitting 16 home runs and driving in 40 runs over the two seasons. Hall, who started 30 games for the 2021 WCWS team, is a possible infielder or designated player. Her return is a boost to JMU’s offensive outlook. 

Bella Henzler, C/OF – Like Mathis, Henzler is a sophomore that figures to be a key piece of JMU softball’s future. Not only does Henzler have phenomenal energy, but she’s also a capable hitter (seven home runs last season) and defender. She’s a leader and figures to be one of the faces of the program as long as she’s in Harrisonburg.

Alissa Humphrey, P – Humphrey has logged 329 innings over three seasons with the Dukes, and she’s back for another year. After going 14-0 in 2021, she’s 17-21 the last two seasons, as she was tasked with the challenge of being the team’s ace in 2022 and 2023. 

With added pitching depth ahead of this season, Humphrey should find herself in a better position to rack up wins (or saves) for JMU in 2024. Having a veteran pitcher with Humphrey’s experience and credentials is a major boost for the program, and the Dukes could either use her as a starter or perhaps a closer this spring.  

Key newcomers

Kirsten Fleet, P – The true freshman pitcher has been hyped up by fans and coaches for years. Now finally on campus, there’s a hope that Fleet can be an immediate starter for JMU. Head coach Loren LaPorte has described her as a potential “program changer.” The Kirsten Fleet hype train is very real entering 2024.

Payton List, P – List didn’t play for Virginia Tech in 2023, but the redshirt freshman entered the collegiate ranks as a highly touted recruit. She was a 2022 MaxPreps All-American, and JMU expects to use List as a pitcher and hitter. Her potential is sky high, and she could develop into the next great two-way player for the program.

Molly Grube, P – A Virginia transfer, Grube pitched 212 innings over four seasons with the Cavaliers. Her best season came in 2023, when she posted a 2.52 ERA across 75 innings. 

She’s more than capable of beating mid-major teams consistently, and she showcased flashes of greatness against Power Five teams at UVA. Grube posted a one-run, complete game against Clemson in 2023. She also tossed a nine-inning shutout against Minnesota. Both programs made NCAA Regionals in 2023. 

Madison Edwards, INF – A true freshman with a ton of potential, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Edwards break into the team’s starting lineup in 2024. 

Season expectations

The schedule includes some challenges, namely road matchups with Louisiana (No. 21 in ESPN’s preseason poll) and South Carolina (No. 22), but it’s hardly a brutal schedule. The Dukes have a lot of winnable games. 

With improved pitching depth – a group led by Grube, Humphrey, and Fleet should be among the best mid-major staffs in the country – the Dukes should find themselves with a chance to win regularly. Even if Fleet doesn’t ascend to ace status in her freshman season, the veteran depth on staff should keep JMU competitive. 

Offensively, JMU has questions. Certainly the lineup isn’t as fearsome as the historic 2021 team, but young talent (Mathis and Henzler among the likely standouts) should lead a capable lineup.

List and Edwards proving to be starting caliber hitters could take the lineup to a new level, but at the very least JMU has a few hitters with the ability to hit 10+ home runs. Another few hitters have speed and can hit for average. The pieces are there to form a good lineup, but the Dukes need young players to step up to have a consistently dangerous lineup.

JMU’s 2024 goal should be to make an NCAA Regional. The Dukes don’t need to win a regional or even the Sun Belt title, but making an NCAA Regional could prove monumental for a roster that looks poised for national relevance in 2025 and 2026. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *