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Redshirt junior Justin Showalter pitches against Quinnipac in 2020.

Veterans Memorial Park hasn’t seen a JMU baseball game since March 1, 2020. Nevertheless, on March 5, 2021, the Diamond Dukes have the opportunity to build off last season’s early success. The full 34-game schedule, filled with both CAA and nonconference games, challenges JMU to climb the CAA rankings and chase a conference championship.

Prior to the early ending of last season, JMU was on pace for its first conference-winning season since 2011. The team had chemistry that brought cohesiveness back with the help of new and returning faces. The starting lineup is nearly the same this year thanks to the NCAA’s extra eligibility ruling that was announced shortly after the shutdown began.

“With us losing the season last year as well as our freshmen losing their final high school year, I think our guys are just excited to play baseball and take it one game at a time,” head coach Marlin Ikenberry said. “It’s what we’ve focused on the most during practices.”

The Dukes welcome back redshirt seniors second baseman Fox Semones and first baseman Brady Harju, both of whom made the decision to return for one final year. Only five players from the 2020 season didn’t return, which is an advantage this season and beyond.

Starting off the season, JMU hosts Bowling Green for a home weekend series, immediately followed by a split home-and-home series against Virginia Military Institute. VMI is a popular opponent for JMU, and the Dukes have the upperhand 53-14 all time. This is the 10th time Ikenberry leads JMU against the Keydets.

“Now that we have the schedule ready, we’re getting excited for all the games,” redshirt sophomore shortstop Nick Zona said. “It’s a really exciting and motivating time knowing when we’re gonna play and having those physical dates set.”

CAA play begins for the Dukes with a six- game series against Elon, presented in a home-and-home format. JMU travels to Elon for three games and immediately returns home for the final three in Harrisonburg. The six games will test the Diamond Dukes, since the last time JMU saw the Phoenix was in a three-game series in 2019, swept by Elon.

In a three-game series, both teams make specific decisions as they learn their opponent. With six games, JMU needs to utilize its roster depth to maximize the offensive and defensive abilities the team has.

“So without interrupting other schedules, Elon and us worked to play back to back without breaking it up,” Ikenberry said. “Playing that is unique because teams are different in the beginning of the season [versus] the end.”

After battling Elon, JMU has a seven-game homestand, hosting CAA foes College of Charleston and UNC Wilmington. Both teams, aside from Elon, took control of the CAA during the 2019 season, providing a bigger challenge as all three are different from the last time they saw the pitch.

JMU begins its longest road trip of the season, a total of nine games, before wrapping up against William & Mary and VCU. The Dukes then focus their attention on the CAA conference tournament in hopes of reclaiming a conference title.

“I don’t think we’re going to skip a beat from last year to this year,” Zona said. “With how many things we can do, hitting, running the bases, pitching and our defense, we have some of the top skill sets in the CAA I believe.”

With a long schedule comes the need for roster depth. Having the 2020 starting lineup return in near full force, the roster now has depth the team hasn’t seen in years. With multipositional players at the coaches’ disposal and a new freshman lineup, the Dukes have an offensive and defensive push.

“The development has been happening now and has been during the fall,” pitching coach Jimmy Jackson said. “Development is always huge year round, but now that it’s here, it’s time to win.”

On the pitching mound, JMU has a full set of pitchers ready to go. After training for a year, each pitcher has developed an even better skillset. Both redshirt junior pitchers Justin Showalter and Nick Stewart return as the top two starters, and the battle for a starting or relieving pitching spot has intensified practices.

“I’m more focused on our own matchups, some guys are potential draft picks and young guys who are challenging themselves,” Jackson said. “It’ll be big with no midweek games this season as well, where starting him during midweek games to prepare him for weekend series isn’t an option anymore.”

There’s nothing but high expectations on JMU baseball’s mind this season. The team has worked toward its first pitch since last season ended but with a hunger they haven’t felt in months. The energy at practice has increased and intensified with a start date burned into their minds, and the confidence the team has is at an all-time high.

“I think the more players we have the better the competition,” Zona said. “It’s only going to make us a better team having the depth we have and the motivation we’ve built up to this point.”

Contact Madison Hricik hricikmn@dukes.jmu.edu. For more coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.