James Madison is starting five defenders for just the second time in Shelley Klaes-Bawcombe’s 12 seasons as head coach, but she says it was an easy decision.
“We start five defenders by choice, over a middie, over another attacker,” Klaes-Bawcombe said. “That’s a testament to our defense and how committed we are to them.”
Senior captain Rebecca Tooker, senior Corinne Schmidt, junior Caroline Sdanowich, and sophomore Emma Johnson all returned as starters from last year’s 10th-ranked scoring defense, and junior Lauren DuVall has been added to the starting lineup this season.
“All five deserve it,” Klaes-Bawcombe said. “We have committed to our defensive presence. We want to start with our strongest defensive effort. We can’t be taking a risk to have to transition somebody on the field if we don’t win the draw. We’re starting defensive. All five defenders have really proven themselves as starters and we want them to feel valued within our system.”
The biggest change at the defensive end is in goal, where regular starting goalie Ellie Harmeyer and Molly Dougherty, who has played in relief, have replaced the graduated Emily Poelma. The veteran defense has combined with a high-powered offense that oftentimes overshadows it to deliver an 8-0 start that pre-season prognosticators didn’t foresee.
“I don’t think they saw the resilience and fire we have,” Tooker said. “We see these articles, especially coming into the season, and we’re not ranked. We know that we’re so much better than the numbers that are on paper. I think they overlooked how good of a team we actually are.”
On Saturday, No. 2 JMU will travel to No. 3 Maryland, the reigning national champion. A win would match the longest opening win streak in program history from 1988. (The Dukes’ Wednesday match at No. 9 Virginia was postponed until April 18 due to inclement weather.)
“This is our midpoint leading into our conference play,” Tooker said. “Coming right to Maryland after, and then UC Davis and starting conference play, it’s very good flow of our season. These games will show us what we need to work on going into our conference. We still need to improve on what works and doesn’t work.”
What has worked for JMU is starting the extra defender, something that they also employed in 2016. It doesn’t hurt their midfield because they have two senior standout middies in two-time Colonial Athletic Association Player of the Year Haley Warden and Elena Romesburg, who is well on her way to eclipse her points from a year ago.
“I feel like since we are returning so many people that our defense is definitely better,” said Warden, who leads the team with 17 caused turnovers and 40 draw controls. “We’ve had a whole year to figure out each other’s tendencies and communicate through all the little things that we struggled with last year. We haven’t taken any steps back. We’ve kind of tweaked where we struggled and then moved forward from there.”
From the outset of the season, Klaes-Bawcombe has liked what she has seen from the defense. They were tested right from the start of the year in their season-opening double overtime win over No. 6 North Carolina. Their defense has made plays down the stretch to hold off teams, and it’s also helped them to good starts. Only two teams have scored this year on their first possession, and JMU has outscored opponents, 71-38, in the first half of games. JMU has trailed only once at halftime, against UNC in the opener.
“It works for us because to have this great defensive start – we have everyone marked up – and we have one person who can stop the fast break,” Tooker said. “A lot of teams that we play on our schedule are really good fast-break teams. If we’re able to stop teams from having fast breaks right off the draw, that will stop their whole momentum, even if they get the first draw, but we get the first defensive stop. I think that’s bigger than getting the first draw. Then we’re able to transition to the offensive end.”
JMU’s scoring has jumped more than three goals per game over last year and sits fourth in scoring offense behind Kristen Gaudian, Hanna Haven, Katie Kerrigan, Romesburg and Warden. Its defense is limiting teams to 10.13 goals per game. That combination has created the country’s fifth best scoring margin.
“It takes a lot to have a full team that trusts each other,” Tooker said. “What I mean is that you usually only have units that trust each other, like the defense trusting each other and the attack trusting each other. But now we have the attack trusting us to do our job and us trusting them to do their job so that gives us confidence to play the way we’ve been playing.”
Klaes-Bawcombe credits third-year assistant coach Emily Boissonneault for the defensive improvements, and the players love Boissonneault’s trust in them. She listens to their feedback and makes adjustments between man and zone defenses based on their input.
“This is the second year where she has completely cleaned up and polished our defensive system,” Klaes-Bawcombe said. “Now, they know what they’re doing. It’s really reliable and consistent. She’s able to tweak things. It’s just a much stronger defensive unit altogether. Anyone who’s been involved in our program understands that – defense has probably improved more than offense has. We really think we have the full package. I understand why people keep asking about the offense, but our defense is good too.”
JMU has turned to its defense to stop the late momentum of teams like Penn State and Richmond, the latter which rallied with a four-goal run to cut a 13-5 advantage to 13-9 with still five minutes left Saturday. JMU held them scoreless the rest of the way for a 14-9 win.
“A lot of times we get the stops because we’re so confident with how well we’ve played all game, and we know we just need one stop or one draw or one of anything to stop their run,” Warden said. “I think everyone has bought into that concept and everyone believes in that. Just having the confidence and knowing we have everything in control helps. It’s up to everyone correcting the slides and anticipating what they’re going to do. I think we’ve really grown in that area and it shows a lot of maturity by our defense being able to make those huge stops.”
There’s experience all over the field for JMU. The Dukes start mainly upperclassmen along with Johnson on defense and either sophomore Maddie McDaniel or freshman Katie Checkosky at attack. That has helped them keep an even keel and support each other through the ebb and flow of games and the season.
“Any given day, JMU has a different player that can step up for them, offensively or defensively,” Klaes-Bawcombe said. “It’s really our balance. We’re not relying on any one player offensively, any one player on the draw, any one player defensively. The whole team is playing well, so we’re able to manage and handle individual mistakes. We’ve even been talking about it at timeout, that mental resilience that everyone talks about. We’re able to turn mistakes into highlights.
“We have a team that understands the game and understands the moment and makes good decisions,” she added. “We have a lot of field generals out there. We have a lot of experienced and mature players that get it.”
The Dukes are encouraged by their start. But it’s only halfway through the year and conference play hasn’t begun, so nothing has been won yet. There is still room to grow on a JMU team that has been powered as much by its defense as its offense.
“Finishing the game is going to be a huge test for us,” Warden said. “We come out very strong and we get super excited, but when it comes to the second half, just having better game management and knowing a lot of it is going to come down to possession of the ball and taking care of it, especially against teams that are good in transition like UVA and Maryland, that’s going to test our mental game in that aspect.”