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Ashby Larkin kicks the ball down the field.

After winning the regular season CAA title, JMU women’s soccer enters the conference tournament as the top seed. The Dukes defied the odds and rallied after a 1-6 start to finish the regular season with a 10-7-1 (7-1-1 CAA) record.

“The girls have been bought in the whole season,” head coach Joshua Walters said. “The culture’s good, they flat out want to win. They’re tired of losing.”

The Dukes have a first-round bye and will host the winner of Friday’s matchup between No. 4 College of Charleston and No. 5 Drexel. Walters’ team has won seven of nine games in the CAA, with a loss coming to No. 2 Northeastern and a tie against Delaware, who missed the postseason tournament.

“We did play a tough non-conference schedule, but to be fair, every game in the CAA is pretty close,” Walters said. “There’s not much separation between teams … Every team has a couple good players and can battle and fight and be physical.”

JMU is third in the conference in goal differential at 0.39, which is behind UNCW at 0.67 and Hofstra at 0.61. Fortunately for the Dukes, the team is clicking at the right time with strong positive momentum — posting nine wins in the last 11 matches.

“Although we are returning a lot of players, we are pretty much a new team,” sophomore forward/midfielder Ginger Deel said. “We’re all getting used to what we are … It did take a couple games for us to get where we want to be, but I think we are [there] now.”

JMU struggled to adjust to a new defensive system under its first-year head coach and was outscored 14-9 in its first seven games. Instead of making excuses for the team’s early losses, the Dukes used disappointing outcomes in the first month of the season as fuel to the fire.

“I feel like if we played the way we’re playing now at the beginning of the season, some of those results would’ve been different,” Walters said.

Walters tweaked the lineup and formed a back line comprised of redshirt freshman forward/midfielder Hannah Coulling, freshman defender Sarah Gordon and freshman defender Ashby Larkin after senior forward Christine Tack went down with a season-ending ACL injury. A strong back line has been key for managing the game, making up for mistakes and pressing the team higher.

“Our goal is to try to outnumber them,” Walters said. “Playing with wing-mid and wing-forwards creates a problem for the other team’s outside back.”

The standings speak for themselves — JMU defeated Liberty on Sept. 12 in its final non-conference game and rose to the top of the CAA soon after. When asked what the key to the team’s turnaround has been, Walters cited hard work and defensive adjustments as two of the biggest reasons behind the sudden transformation.

“A lot of sweat,” Walters chuckled. “Just the kids buying in … We started the season trying to figure out who’s going to play where.”

As the Dukes shift focus to defending their home turf in the CAA tournament, it’s evident they’ve found their identity as a tough defensive team that can match opponents score for score. JMU has allowed just seven goals in its past 11 games and is surrendering over a goal per game this season.

“I think the defense has been insane this year,” Deel said. “I’ve never seen a goalkeeper like [junior goalkeeper Hannah McShea] … She puts people in their place and is one of the best leaders we have on our team.”

This season, the Dukes are tied for fourth in goals allowed per game and rank third in the CAA in goals scored. Surprisingly, JMU has the fewest saves in the conference, meaning the back line has excelled at preventing opponents from getting quality shots.

“I’ve always felt like we can score in every game, but can we keep another team off?” Walters said. “It sounds counter-intuitive to go with less defenders in the back, but [we’re giving] up less goals.”

For JMU to bring home its second CAA tournament championship in four seasons, it must continue its aggressive play to keep pressure off McShea and wear down the opposing defense. Even after road wins over College of Charleston and Drexel, the Dukes can’t get complacent.

“It’s more [about] executing,” junior forward Haley Crawford said. “It’s more of playing the full 90. We come out flat in the second half and that’s where they slip a goal in.”

After defeating every tournament team except Northeastern in the regular season, the Dukes are a favorite to follow up their regular season conference title with a victory in the tournament championship. JMU will face stiff competition in the CAA tournament and must shift from a mindset of chasing opponents and face the pressure of being a tournament favorite.

“You spend most of the season being the arrow aiming at the target, and now we’re a little bit of a target,” Walters said. “We’re trying to keep the same mentality and not focus on what the possibilities are and what’s ahead.”

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

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