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Coach Shelley Klaes-Bawcombe is entering her 13th season has the head coach for the JMU lacrosse team.

Saturday, JMU lacrosse will face off against the 2019 U.S. Women’s National Team in the Fall Classic, an honor awarded to the reigning Division I National Champions. An opportunity that can be either viewed at as the final chapter in the Dukes’ title celebration or the beginning of a new book written on the upcoming 2018-19 season, this is an important landmark for the program.

“We understand that this opportunity is the celebration of what our program did last year,” head coach Shelley Klaes-Bawcombe said. “This is an opportunity to play the best athletes in our sport [and] in the world.”

The Fall Classic is just one of nine games for the Dukes this October. While they’ll undoubtedly face their toughest challenge right off the bat, the team will also face other top programs in fall play. Both Boston College, on Oct. 7, and Maryland, on Oct. 21, were two of the Final Four teams in last year’s tournament, while Virginia and Florida were two teams the Dukes beat on the way to their title victory.

Playing such prestigious programs will be a perfect time for JMU to evaluate its upcoming team. The Dukes graduated nine seniors, including four of the team’s top five scorers. Those four accounted for a total of 222 goals — over 61 percent of the team’s total offense — making for a lot of holes to fill this year.

“In reality we don’t know,” Klaes-Bawcombe said. “This is the first competitive opportunity we’ve had since we competed in the national championship, and we had turnover … So for us, there’s a lot of questions about who we are now and what we’re going to be.”

One of the many talented graduated seniors from last year’s class will actually be on the field this weekend; just on the opposite side of the field. Kristen Gaudian, the Dukes leading scorer and 2018 Tewaaraton Award finalist, will face the purple and gold for the first time in her career.

Gaudian will be given the opportunity to impress first-year head coach Jenny Levy and her staff as they build the upcoming final roster. She’s one of 10 members from the 2018 collegiate class, two of which have previous experience on the team. While Gaudian will be an opponent to her former team, the Dukes are proud of her for the opportunity to succeed at the next level.

“Oh my gosh, I was so happy for her,” junior midfielder Maddie McDaniel said. “It is such a high honor. It’s just great to see that other people notice how great Kristen has become and that she’s receiving such a good opportunity.”

It’s unusual to ever hope that an opponent does well against your own team, but a lot is riding on Gaudian’s performance. Without a guaranteed spot on the roster, a a solid stretch of play could take a huge step in her time spent with the national team.

“It’ll be really fun,” senior defender Caroline Sdanowich said. “It’ll be … essentially like practice, since I always saw her on the opposing team and she was always attacking me while I was playing defense on her.”

When the Dukes hit the field, they’ll be honored for the final time as reigning national champions. Once the match ends, however, the Dukes will officially begin their back-to-back quest — except, this time, they have a target on their heads and the rest of the nation racing to dethrone them.

Contact Blake Pace at breezesports@gmail.com. For more lacrosse coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.