It was only the seventh game of the season, but it already felt like a must-win. With time winding down in regulation, JMU women’s soccer was in a 0-0 battle with High Point before the Panthers scored with two minutes to play, sending the Dukes to 1-6 and the brink of desperation.
“The beginning of the year was all over the place,” junior forward Haley Crawford said. “We got a new coach who was trying things out and putting people in different positions.”
After long-time head coach Dave Lombardo retired in the offseason as the 12th winningest coach in NCAA history and the only coach the program ever knew, JMU women’s soccer was in a state of transition. Widely respected recruiter Joshua Walters was given the honor of succeeding Lombardo — his first D-I head coaching position.
The Dukes showed promise but had yet to generate results on the field after losing six of its first seven games. Ironically, JMU’s 1-0 loss to High Point would be the low point of its season.
“That very next game after we lost to High Point, I felt like we were going to find our groove a little bit,” Walters said. “When we lost, it was the final straw for me to decide, ‘Can we build a game with a three back and play three freshmen in the back?’”
From there, Walters made a strategic coaching adjustment that likely saved the team’s season. He put three young, unproven players on the backline and it paid off — the defense can now flip the field and keep other teams from scoring.
“You don’t know … [putting in] three players who don’t have a ton of experience at the college level,” Walters said. “We literally put three of our fastest players in the back.”
Walters explained that the outside backs’ speed and ability to get the ball downfield on throw-ins prevents opponents from pressing up. This allows JMU to take the ball to the other team’s half of the field, which helps the Dukes pin the other team and score more often.
Since that Sept. 9 loss, the Dukes caught fire and have won eight of their past nine. In that stretch, JMU has outscored opponents 15-6 and is now first place in the CAA standings.
“As the season kept going along we started getting more and more ideas about which players can play where,” Walters said. “We got to a point where we felt like ‘OK, this is the shape, this is the style, this is who we are.’”
After the on-field adjustments, JMU finished off Liberty in its final non-conference game and hasn’t looked back. The Dukes have won four in a row and are 6-1 in-conference, with their one loss coming to 9-7-1 (6-1 CAA) Northeastern.
“The first conference game we came out hard,” sophomore forward/midfielder Ginger Deel said. “We dominated that game … we executed everything we wanted to.”
Walters explained how his team focused on goal differential, not wins or losses. JMU has a horizontal chart in the locker room they record the differential on, and lately, it’s been moving to the right after almost every game.
“We had a run of shutouts … there are several of these games now where we’ve managed to hold a team to very few shots on goal,” Walters said.
Even a discouraging 1-6 start as a new coach never fazed Walters. He believed in himself and his approach before anyone else, and the Dukes are mentally tougher because of their early-season struggles.
“I learned to stick to my guns,” Walters said. “One of the pieces of advice from a mentor of mine has been to stay the course … don’t make every game a life-or-death situation.”
JMU is a different team than the one that fell 1-0 to High Point in early September. The Dukes won’t waver, regardless of the outcome of these final two regular season games against Elon and Delaware.
“I know our last two games aren’t [against] the best in the conference, but there’s still a chance they could bump someone off and make the tournament,” Crawford said.
With one more victory, the Dukes will finish with a winning record for the first time in three seasons, and with two more, JMU will secure a first-round bye in the CAA tournament. If JMU can keep its winning streak going, it’ll complete its biggest turnaround in team history with a conference championship.
Contact James Faris at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more soccer coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.