HARRISONBURG — As James Madison arrives in Ann Arbor, Mich., for the opening round of the NCAA softball tournament, the 16th-ranked Dukes do so with every intention of turning a regional-hosting snub into Super Regional berth.
But they also know advancing out of the four-team double-elimination regional won’t be as easy as rolling through an overmatched Colonial Athletic Association.
It’s hard to overstate just how dominant JMU (47-7) was in the CAA. The Dukes lost just once to a conference foe, a 5-3 setback against Elon. But JMU outscored the Phoenix by a combined 38 runs in their other four meetings, including a pair of five-inning run-rule victories last week in the CAA Tournament.
In all, JMU hit .371 against conference opponents with 34 home runs and 36 doubles in 21 games. Few teams are swinging a hotter bat coming into the NCAA Tournament, but the Dukes know they are about to see a higher caliber of pitcher.
“Yeah, there’s a difference in the pitching, but the strike zone is still the same,” said JMU junior slugger Kate Gordon, who set the school record with 18 home runs this season. “We have the same mindset we’ve had all season of hitting our pitch. There is a difference, but the zone is the same and you have to wait for the pitch to hit.”
JMU opens at 2 p.m. today against DePaul, whose Natalie Halverson comes in with a 21-7 record and 3.07 ERA.
To advance to the Supers, the Dukes will almost certainly have to get past host Michigan, which boasts sophomore Meghan Beaubien and freshman Alex Storako, who have identical 2.00 ERAs and both average better than a strikeout per inning.
JMU’s preparation for top-notch pitching has come in practice, where rather than sticking strictly to batting cages and pitching machines this late in the season, the Dukes have seen live pitches from Megan Good, Odicci Alexander and Payton Buresch.
That’s nothing to sneeze at as all three JMU pitchers enter the postseason with ERAs of 1.87 or better. Good was named the CAA Pitcher of the Year for the fourth time and Alexander was named the league’s Player of the Year for her performance both at the plate and in the circle.
“We hit every way we can in practice,” Gordon said. “We have all of our pitchers throw. We hit off machines, tees, everything. We’re getting our reps against great pitchers.”
Even with Michigan’s impressive staff, JMU has to like the way its pitching stacks up. When the Dukes and Wolverines played in March, Alexander threw eight scoreless innings before Good, whose homer in the top of the ninth proved to be the game-winner, closed it out.
And while the CAA schedule may not have been the ideal preparation for the NCAA Tournament, the Dukes have been in similar situations during early-season events that put them up against Top 25 competition. Trips to Arizona and Arizona State, which is where JMU played Michigan, replicated the caliber of an NCAA Tournament field while also playing games in a team’s home stadium.
“I’m really glad we did that,” JMU coach Loren LaPorte said. “Especially playing at Arizona and Arizona State in front of their fans. Because I can tell you, Ann Arbor, they bring a big crowd. I think it’s important to have felt that and not have everybody in the stands rooting for your. I’m glad we prepared for that.”