Heading into a new season, teams try to improve on what they did the year before to see where they can go with new players. JMU softball is no different, but its 2019 season was one for the history books at JMU.
Last year, JMU not only won the CAA title, but it also went to Ann Arbor, Michigan, and defeated the Michigan Wolverines to advance to the NCAA Super Regionals. Former JMU pitcher Megan Good led the team to a sudden death third game to help push past Michigan, which sent the Dukes to UCLA in the next round. The road to the Super Regionals was long, and it wasn’t an easy one to get through.
“I think that series was the best we’ve ever played,” senior infielder Madison Naujokas said. “I think it played a big impact on the team we are now and an impact on the team we were when we went to UCLA.”
Last year started with the annual St. Pete Clearwater Elite Invitational Softball Tournament. The country’s top teams participate in the early season classic, including eventual NCAA runner-up Oklahoma as well as LSU and Tennessee. JMU’s participation in the tournament gave the Dukes national attention, as ESPN covers it. At Clearwater last year, the Dukes defeated Tennessee, 6-2; Oregon, 9-1; and Florida Atlantic University, 6-1.
“[Clearwater] was really exciting,” Naujokas said. “A lot of times teams don’t get to experience something so big and with so many fans, and I think that tournament opened our eyes to what postseason play is like.”
Coming off the tournament, JMU looked strong heading into other smaller tournaments. However, not all the tournaments saw the Dukes excel. In the Wildcat Invitational, the Dukes won two games but also fell in two contests to then-ranked opponents Arizona and Minnesota. In the Arizona State University Invitational, the Dukes won four of five, including a win over Michigan.
“One of the biggest times we built team chemistry was the Arizona trip,” senior outfielder Cambry Arnold said. “We stayed in a big house together, we had meals together and our team really got close.”
The Dukes looked strong going into their first home stand of the season with the JMU Invitational as they went 4-0 to start the season in Harrisonburg, giving them momentum for CAA play. Every game JMU played during the tournament lasted only five innings with the Dukes dominant enough to have the mercy rule exercised.
“Every year we’re like, ‘This is our year, this is our year,’” Gordon said. “Last year, though, I feel like something just clicked for the team.”
CAA play also treated the Dukes well. Other than a 5-3 loss to Elon on March 23, the Dukes went undefeated in conference play. They suffered a loss late in the season to Virginia Tech, but JMU immediately got back on track, winning 16 in a row heading into the CAA Tournament.
JMU cruised through the CAA Championships to push its winning streak to 19 games. The Dukes beat College of Charleston 12-0, and they beat Elon in both games, the first by 9-1 and the second 12-0. With a dominant CAA record, depth at all positions and the CAA title, the Dukes hoped to host a regional matchup in the NCAA Tournament. However, Michigan was awarded the No. 15 seed and Northwestern the No. 16 seed, meaning the Dukes would be on the road throughout their run.
“I feel like the NCAA sent us there and paired us with a really good competitor,” Gordon said. “Either of us could have won that game, and I’m happy we won.”
JMU brought its 19-game win streak into Ann Arbor, where it looked to continue it. The Dukes defeated DePaul in the first game of the Ann Arbor Regional but fell the next day in a hard-fought battle to Michigan 1-0 that went 12 innings. The Dukes came back later that day to once again defeat DePaul and set up an elimination game with Michigan.
Good pitched the second matchup with Michigan and held the Wolverines to five hits that game. Gordon had a home run on the board, and then-sophomore second baseman Sara Jubas had a home run and double to help lift the Dukes to a 3-0 win over Michigan, forcing a sudden-death Game 3.
Good pitched for the second game in a row for the Dukes during a “win and in” situation. She batted a home run in the fourth inning to put JMU up 1-0, and then-sophomore infielder Hannah File hit a single to send Arnold home in the fifth inning, putting the Dukes up 2-0. But Michigan wasn’t done, and the fans rallied behind their team as the Wolverines homered to make the score 2-1. Their rally wasn’t enough, though, as JMU held off the surge and advanced to the Super Regionals.
“Honestly, it was so surreal,” Gordon said. “It was just an awesome moment for us as a team.”
JMU had momentum going into the Super Regionals, but its task was large — take out the No. 2 seeded UCLA Bruins. California didn’t do the Dukes any favors, as JMU fell 6-1 in the first game and 7-2 in the second game. JMU’s run in the NCAA Tournament ended in Los Angeles.
“Our team goal is always to make it to the [Women’s College] World Series,” Arnold said. “It was an amazing feeling, and we all felt blessed.”
Now, heading into the 2020 season, Naujokas said they want to improve off last year’s long run and go even further this season. The only senior on the team last year was Good, so the team is relatively similar to last year’s roster.
“I think, for the seniors, some of our goals are to make a big impact on the team,” Naujokas said. “We want to show younger players that it’s not just a one-and-done deal. We just want to stay at that high level.”
The Dukes had a stellar season in 2019, and looking ahead to 2020, Naujokas said they want to bring in the same kind of energy and spirit. The Dukes begin their journey to defend their CAA crown on Feb. 15 against Texas Tech in the Clearwater Invitational.
Contact Savannah Reger at email@example.com. For more softball coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.