For the first time since 2019, the Diamond Dukes will play postseason baseball.
Following its series win against Old Dominion, JMU baseball clinched a spot in the 2023 Sun Belt Conference Championship and will face the Monarchs again in a single-elimination game Tuesday. The Dukes’ last trip to the postseason was the 2019 CAA Championship, which they lost after dropping both their opening round matchup and first single elimination game, so for JMU head coach Marlin Ikenberry, clinching a spot in this year’s postseason was meaningful.
“It’s gratifying and exciting for our guys,” Ikenberry said. “It’s something that these seniors and fifth-year seniors have been wanting since the day they stepped on campus, and seeing it kind of all come to fruition and more importantly watching their progress has been extremely exciting.”
While JMU’s fifth-year seniors will be making their long-awaited return to the postseason, the majority of the roster — 33 of the 39 players — has no experience whatsoever.
One of these players is sophomore outfielder Ryan Dooley; however, despite this being his first collegiate tournament, he’ll be entering the week with a piece of advice he says coaches have been telling him since eighth grade: “You’ve gotta be playing your best ball in late May and early June.”
So far, the team’s only gotten better as time has gone on. This is in part to how the once-injured team at the beginning of conference play has gotten healthier. Dooley, redshirt senior utility Trevon Dabney, redshirt junior right-handed pitcher/utility Jacob Steinberg and sophomore infielder Coleman Calabrese were all unavailable for at least some portion of conference play.
“It was kind of a roller-coaster ride for those first couple of weekends,” Ikenberry said, “just trying to figure out different guys in different positions.”
As a result, JMU entered tough conference series like South Alabama in early April and Southern Miss a few weeks later down three position players. The Dukes lost both series, but once players started to come back, Ikenberry said it provided a “spark.” That spark came to fruition in JMU’s upset wins over Louisiana — its first conference sweep in the Sun Belt.
“It was kind of a series where it was like, ‘Okay, they’re coming into Harrisonburg for the first time and we just gotta play our best baseball,’” Ikenberry recalled on Friday, “and I kind of thought that’s when we were playing our best baseball was that weekend.”
Helping contribute to that sweep was Dooley, who was playing in his first conference series of the season after being out for a month and a half due to injury. Since his return, he’s earned 18 RBIs across 17 games after just one in his five games before injury.
Last season, Dooley’s performance also improved as time went on, inspiring Ikenberry to give him the nickname “Mr. April” after he logged 12 hits during the month.
“That’s hard to do when you’ve been on the shelf most of the year, and then all of a sudden you get the go to go ahead and start playing and then come in and do how he’s done,” Ikenberry said.
Defense has also improved as conference play progressed, specifically with the pitching. One of the biggest contributors to that has been sophomore right-hander Todd Mozoki. Since conference play has started, he’s stepped into a regular starting role and has flourished, allowing 26 earned runs while throwing 33 strikeouts in 41 innings across 10 games.
Mozoki gives the credit to the scouting done before the game by pitching coach Jimmy Jackson, saying the main job for the pitching staff is “just executing.” Still, this season, Mozoki has pitched in challenging environments like Florida State and Southern Miss, which he said he’s grateful for as those atmospheres are similar to what he might face if he takes the mound during the tournament.
“You can’t make mistakes,” Mozoki said, “and if I do like I did earlier in the season against Florida State, [it’s] just learning how to learn from that and get better and not make them again.”
“You’re going to have to rely on guys to do something special in tournament play that maybe they haven’t had as many opportunities all year or maybe it’s something we haven’t seen out of them this year that they’re just going to have to accomplish in the tournament,” Ikenberry said.
Aside from learning from mistakes, Ikenberry said the tournament will also be a time when player who haven’t seen many opportunities to make an impact on the team will be relied on to “do something special.” It might be a tall order for some, but Dooley is confident in his teammates, and tells them they’ve “earned this moment” and the right to be in the tournament.
JMU earned the right to be in its first Sun Belt Championship, but it’s not satisfied. Ikenberry said his goal is still the same — get to the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska. The goal may seem far out of reach for the seventh seed in the Sun Belt Championship, but Ikenberry said he wants his guys to believe that anything can happen.
“We’re proven we can play with the best in the country and be able to compete with the best in the country and come back from deficits and make really good baseball games down the stretch,” Ikenberry said. “Having played the way we’ve played the past month, all it takes is a little spark here and there, and who knows what could happen.”
First, JMU has to face No. 10 Old Dominion — the same team that they defeated to clinch their spot — on Tuesday at 4 p.m.