When taking that first trip to Harrisonburg, one may not think much of the town. As traffic heads north on I-81 through the rocks and fog, there’s barely any road signs for Harrisonburg until making the exit for Staunton. To a degree, it makes sense.
But to Harrisonburg’s local residents who live in the Shenandoah Valley, it’s a different state of mind and more than an average college town. In their eyes, this small town isn’t caught between two major cities, but rather draws people from Richmond and Washington, D.C., on its own merit. Its population isn’t noticeably large, but the community of 54,215 who call the ’Burg their home is strong, thriving and rapidly growing every year.
“We’re not small and we’re not in the middle of nowhere anymore,” JMU Media Arts and Design professor Joe Loyacano said.
Harrisonburg may be the home of three colleges, but only one of those schools draws over 20,000 screaming fans into Bridgeforth Stadium. Every Saturday in the fall, students, residents and alumni come together to bleed purple and cheer on JMU’s dominant football team.
Beyond the football team, James Madison has defending national champions in lacrosse, regular-season champions in both women’s and men’s soccer and numerous accolades across the board. There’s no denying it — JMU Athletics has roots in the town of Harrisonburg as deep as the Dukes’ winning tradition.
Sophomore cross country runner Madelynn Knight is one of the hundreds of student athletes proud of her team, school and town. She noticed the JMU fandom, in some cases, starts early at home.
“I have a few professors who have talked about how their kids are growing up close to JMU sporting events and cheering for the teams,” Knight said. “It’s cool how the kids will grow up bleeding purple starting just from where they live.”
Harrisonburg seems to only be growing with the evolution of its collegiate athletics and success of multiple teams. The town’s population grew by 4.3 percent in the past year alone and is projected to expand rapidly in the next decade. Loyacano has personally seen this growth as both a student in the ’90s and a teacher 20 years later. To him, the growth in both JMU’s sports scene and the town is astounding. He’s seen the impact the Dukes have had to help Harrisonburg, as well as the school, grow.
“We used to use the football stadium to cut through campus during the football games; no one was in the stands,” Loyacano said. “I was certain I would never see ‘College GameDay’ here, but having seen it twice in three years has been incredible. Sports have taken over the campus and our teams have been a great indicator to both the growth of the campus and the town.”
Success from the Dukes has also affected local businesses. JMU’s dominance has attracted new businesses from all over the country. This includes Tommy Urglavitch, who, along with his brother Steven, moved from Philadelphia to establish Urgie’s Cheesesteaks in Harrisonburg. Tommy was amazed at the atmosphere created by the Dukes’ sports upon becoming part of the community.
“My brother and I actually wanted to open up here because we knew what was going on down at JMU,” Tommy said. “Being guys from Philadelphia with our locally based product, we know about 20 percent of the school’s population is from New Jersey, eastern Pennsylvania and Maryland. A lot of people also follow James Madison up in our neck of the woods.”
The impact JMU Athletics has had on the once-small — and still growing — town of Harrisonburg is undeniable. The school, fans, town and community bleeds purple as one in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley.
“The town is a big reason why we’re so successful and why we love it so much here,” Knight said. “To Harrisonburg, thank you so much for pouring into JMU and being there for us.”
The success of JMU sports and the community is linked in a sense that when the Dukes win, the town wins. A JMU victory in Harrisonburg means families go home happy, businesses boom and the Dukes are only motivated to win more.
A victory for the Dukes also means Harrisonburg is there to celebrate. The town welcomes its athletes into a local restaurant for a well-earned meal or to simply say, “Well done,” like a family does at the day’s conclusion. As for I-81 and that trip here, the way things have been going, one would expect to see more road signs soon. With luck, they’ll be as purple as the town itself.
Contact Jordan Simal at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more sports coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.