Kelly Vahos

Kelly Vahos preparing for the Charleston to serve the ball.

JMU volleyball finished its season with a 21-6 overall record, a 13-3 showing in conference play, the No. 2 seed in the CAA tournament and a bye for the first round. If the season ended right now, it’d be fair to say the Dukes had a successful season. However, the team is looking to cap off its success with a historic championship: it’s third in three years.

It’d be easy to think the prospect of the tournament looms on the team’s mind, but that’d be wrong. The only emotion the Dukes feel is excitement. The team will play the winner of Charleston vs. UNCW cut on Saturday. Ahead of their first bout, the Dukes and their coaching staff will sit courtside to scout their potential opponents.

“After we get that, we should get a really good report ready for Saturday,” head coach Lauren Steinbrecher said. “I think it helps us just to see their latest tendencies [. . .] Little things here or there, or maybe we just get a better understanding of the team.”

A conference tournament pits the Dukes against familiar foes. Instead of a NCAA tournament, where you could be facing teams for the first time in program history, the Dukes have seen each of their opponents twice already.

“Maybe we present the information [to the players] the first time we play them, and the players get most of it,” Steinbrecher said. “The second time we play them they get a little more of it and then by the third time you play them we’re like ‘Okay, we got that team figured out.’”

On the other hand, opposing teams get more time to scout JMU as well. The added evaluation time can help the Dukes make quick work of their opponents, or it can make for more competitive matches. The team won’t know which it is until the Dukes takes the court against the Cougars or the Seahawks.

Regardless of which team they play, the Dukes want an opponent that’ll bring an intensity to match their own. This JMU team thrives under pressure and with high stakes. They aren’t down or kicking themselves for losing their No. 1 ranking to the Hofstra Pride: Rather, the team has comfortably slipped into the mindset of an underdog.

“We don’t focus on the idea that everyone has for us,” redshirt junior outside hitter Kelly Vahos said. “We’re just focusing on being the underdogs … We’re just going to go in there with the underdog mentality and just grind every single point, every single set, every single game until we walk away with what we want.”

A team with the success of the 2018 volleyball Dukes has come with a long and tedious schedule. Constant traveling, 28 matches and three invitationals has taken a toll on JMU since its season began on Aug. 18.

Whatever fatigue the team felt after a long season evaporated at the beginning of the postseason. A palpable, eager energy radiates from every player on the team.

“We can’t be tired,” junior middle blocker M’Kaela White said. “We’ve got goals to accomplish. We want to make a run in the NCAA [tournament] and that’s never happened in JMU history or CAA history. We really want to go and do that, and working hard in practice, we’re going to go through temporary pain for a lifetime of that experience and that happiness.”

The Dukes aren’t tripping over themselves or losing sight of their immediate goals because they’re too focused on their long-term ones. The team has centered itself in the here-and-now; their sole focus is their first tournament match this Saturday at 4 p.m.

Contact Michael Turner at turnermb@dukes.jmu.edu. For more volleyball coverage, follow the Breeze Sports desk on twitter @TheBreezeSports.

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