Throughout James Madison’s three games in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament, shortstop Mason Dunaway found ways to create offense after an 0-for-4 showing in the Dukes’ opener.
When the rest of JMU’s lineup struggled against Southern Miss ace Tanner Hall in the team’s second game of the postseason, it was Dunaway that found success with a first-inning double and a fourth-inning single — two of the Dukes’ three hits — and scored the purple and gold’s only run.
And when the Dukes needed to find life in their batting order with their season on the line against Appalachian State in an elimination game, it was Dunaway that provided a jolt of energy to put JMU back in the game.
The Chesapeake native’s two-run homer that just cleared the left field fence tied the contest in the seventh before App State strung together a three-run eighth to threaten the Dukes’ season.
But the Dukes weren’t done yet.
JMU put together a battle late in the contest as second baseman Mike Mancini’s two-RBI double cut the deficit to one, but the Dukes couldn’t pull closer than that as App State held on to win 8-7 at Riverwalk Stadium in Montgomery, Ala. on Thursday morning.
The Dukes, who seemingly didn’t appear to be out of any game this season, won 21 games after trailing, so as they faced multiple deficits throughout the elimination contest, it wasn’t an unusual spot.
“I thought our guys fought to the end,” JMU coach Marlin Ikenberry said. “This team’s been a really tough team all year and they proved their toughness by fighting back, tying the game. … I was proud of how our guys kept battling, competing and they’ve done that all year.”
JMU’s season came to a close after it recorded the most single-season wins since 2019, while it also logged its first postseason win since its 2016 Colonial Athletic Association Tournament win over Northeastern.
In its season-ending defeat, the Dukes recorded just two extra-base hits, a stadium-clearing two-run home run from catcher Jason Schiavone and Dunaway’s two-RBI laser to left field.
Dunaway and Schiavone both finished 2-for-4 with a home run and two RBI to pace the Dukes in the season-ending loss to the Mountaineers.
“Mason’s a really good baseball player,” Ikenberry said of Dunaway. “He struggled his first couple at-bats, but he put it together in the last couple at-bats and he put a really good swing on it to hit a two-run home run. So, I was excited to see him do that.”
Before the elimination contest, JMU relied on small ball to put runners in scoring position for much of the tournament — and parts of the tail end of the regular season — but opposing teams were able to minimize JMU’s damage with strikeouts and tight defensive play.
Southern Miss’ Tanner Hall only conceded three hits and fanned nine in JMU’s first loss of the tournament. Against App State, the Dukes struck out five times and stranded eight runners on the base paths.
But small ball is what allowed the Dukes to threaten the Mountaineers’ lead in the top of the ninth. JMU utilized a trio of walks that loaded the bases for Mancini, who drove in a pair with the one-out single.
By the time Dukes' slugger Kyle Novak came up to the plate, JMU was down to its final out, and he flew out with the tying run on second as App State left fielder CJ Boyd made a snow cone catch to end the game.
In a sense, the contest characterized not only the Dukes’ season as a whole, but its four games against the Mountaineers this spring. In late April, App State took the first meeting by four runs, but the Dukes answered that with a nine-run win of their own. In the rubber match, App State needed a walk-off blast to skate past JMU.
That win ended up being the difference in seeding between the No. 6 and No. 7 spots in the conference tournament, but the two squads ended up meeting for one final time.
For App State coach Kermit Smith, JMU wasn’t a team he wanted to see in the conference tournament.
“JMU scared me as much as anyone this year,” Smith said. “You could tell they were super focused. … They were resilient.”
The Dukes proved Smith right with their scratch and claw effort late in the game, but the Mountaineers ended JMU’s inaugural season in the Sun Belt in the third round of the league tournament.
And for Ikenberry, his squad never quit, which was something he could guarantee from the start of the tournament.
“We’re a tough team,” Ikenberry said. “We preach toughness and this team epitomizes toughness. And you saw that today in the way they battled.”
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