M'Kaela White

M'Kaela White pins the ball over the net earlier this season.

JMU volleyball begins its quest to defend back-to-back CAA titles Thursday as regular-season conference play begins. The Dukes will kick off a four-game home stand in nine days against Northeastern, Hofstra, Delaware and Towson.

“The CAA is a unique conference in that the best team can lose to the worst team,” head coach Lauren Steinbrecher said. “We certainly can’t overlook anyone. Our next opponent will [always] be the most important.”

JMU is striving toward another championship following a strong 8-2 start but is focused on the present. Many players are confident this team — coming off its highest winning percentage since 1987 — is better than ever.

“I definitely think this year’s team is a lot better than last year’s team,” junior middle blocker M’Kaela White said. “This year’s team could kick last year’s team’s butt in any match.”

Those strong words show the confidence players have in this team’s ability to outperform last year’s 23-6 squad that won the CAA. At first, it’s unclear how the Dukes could top the remarkable 2017 season, but a closer look at the standings reveals room for improvement.

Last year, the Dukes won the CAA tournament despite finishing third in the regular season conference standings at 11-5. That mark paled in comparison to Charleston’s 15-1 in-conference record and was just behind Towson at 12-4. JMU is far from complacent and worked hard in the offseason to not just defend its titles, but to improve.

“We just graduated our starting libero and everyone else is back, but better,” White said. “Balls that we couldn’t get last year we’re picking up with ease and everyone’s just so aggressive. The competition on the court is amazing and our freshmen really help out a lot with that.”

By focusing on player development through rigorous practices centered around competition, the Dukes are pushing each other to new heights to get the most from everyone. This environment of positive pressure creates a support system where players hold each other accountable and constantly seek improvement.

“It’s a great atmosphere to be in when your teammates want to push you and want you to do your best,” junior outside hitter Briley Brind’Amour said.

JMU came into the season with a gaping hole at starting libero after graduating defensive specialist Taylor Austin. Austin had a remarkable career with the Dukes, ranking second in program history in digs with 2,083 and was named the 2016 CAA Defensive Specialist of the Year.

Austin’s 532 digs last season were the fourth-most in program history for a single season and were more than the next two highest Dukes (220 and 217) combined. Steinbrecher described the preseason battle between defensive specialists for the starting libero spot and how last year’s stars have continued to improve.

“All the players are better,” Steinbrecher said. “Our setter, [junior] Sarah Martin, has gotten a lot better at attacking. We’re able to push her tighter and she’s able to get one to two kills per set, which she wasn’t doing last year.”

Martin has 56 kills on the season through 10 games and is on pace to far exceed her mark of 90 in 2017. White has gone from averaging 3.2 points and 2.4 kills per set to 4.0 and 3.1, respectively. As a team, the Dukes are averaging more assists, kills and aces and fewer reception errors per set.

“Every day, they’re all coming in and battling,” Steinbrecher said. “It’s fun to see the level rise when they push each other.”

JMU has grown and improved in the offseason, but will face strong CAA opponents once again en route to a third consecutive title and a fifth NCAA tournament appearance. Based on non-conference play, it appears the Dukes will have new challengers. Charleston is off to a 9-5 start after going 27-6 last season and Towson is at the bottom of the conference at 5-8.

Elon is tied with JMU at 8-2 after going 16-16 last year and Hofstra is 10-4 following an 18-14 campaign. With strong leadership and good momentum, the Dukes are already a formidable opponent for anyone in the CAA.

“I think a challenge will be to make sure we’re playing up to the level we can,” Brind’Amour said. “We’ve seen how well we can do, and we know [where] we can get.”

The Dukes are focusing on internal improvement, regardless of which teams rise to the top of the conference standings. It’s too early to forecast which teams where be where by the end of the season, and right now, JMU is completely unconcerned with speculation.

“[Our focus is] just playing JMU volleyball,” White said. “Playing to the same level, regardless of who’s on the other side of the net.”

Contact James Faris at farisja@dukes.jmu.edu. For more volleyball coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.

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