JMU softball takes the field for the first time this season against California for the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Elite Invitational on Feb. 15. The Dukes play two top-25 teams in their first four games, including No. 5 Tennessee, who eliminated JMU from the NCAA Regionals last season, and No. 12 Oregon.
“It is a non-conference season, I think it’s going to be a good test for us to see where we are, the things where we need to grow and get better at,” head coach Loren LaPorte said. “We train our girls to be the best, so it’s important for them to play the best so that they can see what their best is.”
After finishing 43-14 (19-2 CAA) last season, JMU reached regionals for the sixth-straight year before the Volunteers put an end to its season. Last season, JMU finished its non-conference schedule with a 21-8 record, including an impressive win over a then-No.15 Cal team. The Dukes enter the season No. 22 in the country, according to the ESPN/USA Softball Collegiate poll, and are taking last season’s postseason run as a learning experience for this campaign.
“I think we have a really good balance as far as our team,” LaPorte said. “We had a ton of freshmen that started last year that are now sophomores, so they have that postseason experience. Last year, we were very under experienced when it comes to that.”
The team adds eight freshmen to replace the five seniors who graduated. One key player the Dukes will look to replace is infielder Morgan Tolle, who hit .403 with 18 home runs and 55 RBIs last season. Overall, the Dukes led the CAA in home runs, slugging percentage and on-base percentage.
“We lost Morgan last year and Morgan was a big part of our lineup,” junior infielder Kierstin Roadcap said. “We got a lot of young talent this year that I think is going to help maintain that. We’re a power hitting team one through nine, so I think we’re going to strive to beat 84 [home runs] this year.”
Although JMU hit a conference-high 84 home runs, it’s working to produce runs in case the power doesn’t show up. JMU has made an emphasis on situational hitting to score runs in late-game moments.
“We’ve done a lot in the fall working on different scenarios, pretending that there’s baserunners on, putting ourselves in more pressure situations so we can perform for when the time comes,” Roadcap said. “That’s what our coaches like to do with us in practices. Try and put us in real game and pressure situations so that we can perform late in the season.”
Sophomore pitcher Payton Buresch and junior pitcher/infielder Odicci Alexander are both coming off productive seasons. Alexander hit .374 with 16 home runs and 56 RBIs while pitching her first full season from the circle while Buresch won CAA Rookie of the Year behind a 1.96 ERA in 39 appearances. Redshirt senior pitcher/infielder Megan Good returns after missing the 2018 season with a knee injury — she hit .383 with 12 home runs and 58 RBIs in 2017.
“In the fall we worked really hard to get stronger as a whole, I think we’re bringing that new to the table this year,” Buresch said. “The fact that we have Megan back, I think she’s going to be huge for this team and be included into pitching rotation. I’m excited to see where we go.”
As JMU prepares for the start of the season, it’s taking some of the lessons it learned from the previous season and applying them this upcoming campaign. With a strong pitching staff and young core, the Dukes are looking to make a deeper postseason run than years past.
“There’s seven innings in a game,” Buresch said. “If we’re down one inning, it doesn’t mean we can’t come back. Last year, we kind of [took] our heads out of the game if we were down. I think this year we’re a lot mentally stronger and physically stronger, so I think we’re ready to go.”
Contact Jason Clampitt at email@example.com. For more softball coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.