James Madison defender Rachel Matey charges up the field against Virginia at Sentara Park. Matey was an honorable mention All-American defender in the shortened 2020 season.

Over the past few years, James Madison lacrosse has had a steady stream of offensive standouts ready to take the lead as the Dukes won three straight Colonial Athletic Association titles and may have been on the way to a fourth when the 2020 season was canceled in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak last March.

When JMU, which returned to the practice field this month, returns to action in the spring it will look to the defensive end of the field for leadership with fifth-year senior Emma Johnson back.

Johnson, a two-time All-CAA defender earned her degree last spring, but elected to come back to the Dukes after the NCAA granted an extra year of eligibility to spring sport athletes who had their seasons cut short. JMU coach Shelley Klaes said that decision reshaped the outlook for 2021.

“To be able to have the luxury of having Emma Johnson back, she’s one of our most composed and knowledgeable athletes,” Klaes said. “This is a really young team and a really crazy year. Having her confidence and calmness is a huge asset to this program. Her being able to shape some of the freshmen mentality, that’s a great asset to the program.”

Senior attackers Maddie McDaniel and Logan Brennan opted not to return after graduating last spring, leaving JMU with a talented, but young group on the offensive end.

But Johnson, fellow defender Rachel Matey and All-American goalkeeper Molly Dougherty are among the reasons the Dukes should be among the tougher teams in the CAA and perhaps the nation to score against.

Matey, a redshirt sophomore, was an Inside Lacrosse Honorable Mention All-American during the shortened season last spring, causing 10 turnovers in six games. Johnson already ranks among JMU’s top 10 all time in both caused turnovers and ground balls and could continue to move up the list as the Dukes look for a deep NCAA Tournament run in 2021.

Last spring, Johnson was preparing to begin a career as a technology engineering consultant and had shifted her fitness routine toward training for a half marathon. When the NCAA presented the option of retaining eligibility, her employer allowed her to delay starting and she returned to JMU.

“The feeling last week that we were actually being able to practice, I didn’t think that was ever going to happen again,” Johnson said. “Being able to walk onto the field everyday, I know you can’t take anything for granted and I think that has been instilled on the whole team ever since we had to deal with the coronavirus.”

Now the Dukes are building toward the spring season with junior Katie Checkosky set to lead a young attacker unit that figured out ways to continue to work toward improving even when JMU couldn’t practice as a team.

“This was the longest time since we started playing sports that we didn’t have any competition or we weren’t practicing with a team on the field,” Checkosky said. “But my younger sister plays lacrosse and they were actually having tryouts and practices by the end of summer, so I was able to train with her.”

Contact Shane Mettlen at 574-6244 or smettlen@dnronline.com. Follow Shane on Twitter: @Shane_DNRSports

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