Heading into the 2018 season, JMU lacrosse was flourishing after two consecutive undefeated fall-ball seasons. Its early success boosted the locker room’s confidence, head coach Shelley Klaes said, while the Dukes prepared for their annual first-game, early-February matchup against then-No. 3 North Carolina, which had appeared in three of the last five national championship games to that point, winning two.
The No. 16 Dukes went on to upset the Tar Heels, 15-14, thanks to a game-winning goal by senior attacker Kristen Gaudian (2015-18) in double overtime.
After the game, former JMU defender Emma Johnson (2017-21) talked to the mother of former midfielder Haley Warden (2015-18). Johnson said she remembers Warden’s mom telling her JMU will win the national championship.
Johnson said she believed her.
“It started to sink in,” Johnson said about her feelings after the North Carolina win. “Like, wow, we’re good.”
The 2018 squad did just that, finishing the year 22-1 and defeating Boston College in the NCAA championship game in another 16-15 thriller. That 2018 JMU team will be honored tomorrow at halftime versus Johns Hopkins as it celebrates the five-year anniversary of its championship.
‘We were just better than everybody’
Not only was Warden’s mom onto JMU’s championship aura early on, but so was Warden herself. Klaes recalled a moment in the preseason when a speech by the team captain, Warden, reminded the team of their championship potential. Klaes called it the “turning point” of the season.
“She put it out there for the team,” Klaes said. “She was emotional and Haley was a pretty guarded individual, so to see her show emotion and show that kind of vulnerability in her leadership was a huge turning point for the team.”
Later in the season, Warden, now the program’s all-time leader in draw controls, was named the most outstanding player of the NCAA Tournament after racking up 13 goals and 21 draw controls in the four games — and the rest is history.
Though it’s been just under five years since JMU’s crowning day on May 27, 2018, the memory is still fresh in the minds of many of the champions.
“I'm still running into people that I haven't talked to in like, five years or 10 years. And they're like, ‘Hey, I watched your championship game, that was awesome,’” Gaudian said. “It's just crazy how much attention we did get and how many people were tuned in because no one's really seen JMU in the Final Four before.”
The win marked JMU’s fourth NCAA Division I championship, joining field hockey (1994) and football (2004, 2016), still considered Division I albeit at the FCS level. JMU in 2018 became the first school without a football team in the FBS to win the women’s lacrosse title since Princeton in 2003.
From 2005-17, only three women’s lacrosse programs — Northwestern, North Carolina and Maryland — had lifted the national title trophy. Even then, it hadn’t been since 1988 that there was a national championship winner, Temple, not from the ACC, Big 10 or Ivy league.
Gaudian even jokingly said that she believes “some people still don't believe that we won.”
“We earned a lot of respect,” Klaes said. “Not just from the families of the youth that's playing, but also the club coaches, the college coaches and the high school coaches. People really took note of what's happening. So for us, it did so much for our recruiting, and I think that's what we've seen in our ability to stay current with our success.”
Klaes recalled an interview after JMU beat unseeded U.Va., 15-12, in the second round of the NCAA tournament where she had to “remind” the interviewer that JMU was the No. 3 seed in the tournament because they were questioning how they won the game.
Klaes said she was the voice of her program all year long to make sure JMU got respect. And she said JMU carried a “chip” on its shoulder in 2018 to show how strong it had become despite a lack of media coverage compared to other top programs.
Through the last five years, seven All-Americans, captains and key pieces have left, but Klaes has been a constant. Since winning the championship, Klaes has led the Dukes to a 47-15 record, two CAA championships and an NCAA tournament bid in each of those seasons. And earlier this season, she reached 200 wins at JMU after defeating UConn on Feb. 18.
Through it all, though, Klaes deflects credit when looking back on her championship and what she’s accomplished since.
“The more I keep making it about the people around me, the more it continues to serve me,” Klaes said. “I'm getting emotional about that, but I love to just be a servant to the people in my program. And I think in the beginning, maybe that wasn't enough, and I wanted more and more and more. But as I'm getting older, I'm learning that that is enough.”
Klaes is now in her 17th season leading the Dukes and has them off to a 6-1 start and ranked No. 8 in the country, only falling to open the season against the No. 1 Tar Heels.
The 2023 team did something the 2018 team couldn’t do, though: beat Maryland. A midseason loss to the Terrapins was JMU’s only blemish to the champions’ record; the Dukes won 14 straight games afterward through the national title. Klaes said she knew her team was good, but she didn’t know JMU was going to win out.
“I’m sure there’s other programs that use our story as a way to motivate their current teams because we show that a mid-major can win it all,” Johnson said. “We take down these powerhouses, and I think that our story probably inspires a lot of people.”