Entering the 2020-21 season, James Madison has a good deal of experience on its roster, But the Dukes’ most seasoned veterans, graduate transfers Morgan Smith and Anne Diouf are new to JMU.
So unlike last season when coach Sean O’Regan looked onto the practice floor and saw five seniors, including eventual CAA Player of the Year and WNBA draft pick Kamiah Smalls, O’Regan had some questions of who would emerge in a leadership role.
“It’s different in so many ways,” O’Regan said. “My security blankets aren’t there.”
It turns out sophomore forward Kiki Jefferson was up to the task. Jefferson, who averaged 9.8 points and 5.6 rebounds per game as a freshman, was more or less anointed the program’s next star the moment she arrived in Harrisonburg. She backed it up by winning the CAA Rookie of the Week award nine times, a number matched only by former Delaware star and eventual WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne.
But taking over games is different than taking over practices, and the JMU coaching staff has been impressed with the way Jefferson has stepped up in terms of encouraging and directing teammates in just her second year.
“She’s definitely another level up,” O’Regan said. “She was never one of those quiet freshmen we had to drag emotion out of. That was never her, but now she’s running the show leadership wise. That has energy required in that, but it also has, sometimes you have to tell people where to go.”
While Jefferson has been more vocal, she’s also set an example with her effort, and slid naturally into a new role with her ability to lead by example.
“It’s been a learning curve for her,” O’Regan said. “Just because it is new to her. I’m asking her to do more than I asked Smalls to do at the same stage. I remember Smalls’ sophomore year we didn’t make her a leader and captain then. We needed her to score, but said let’s leave some of that to (others). I’m asking Kiki to do that right away and it has been fun to watch for me because she can handle it.”
The Dukes have four freshmen active on the roster and each could contribute this season. But one in particular who is quickly catching attention is Peyton McDaniel. A 6-footer from Birdsboro, Penn., is listed as a guard, but through the early part of the preseason has shown she can play nearly anywhere on the court.
“I’m extremely excited about her,” O’Regan said. “She moves well for her size. For me, she’s like the full package. We do one drill where she hits a couple 3’s in a row, then she dives into the post, catches and makes a left-handed floater. She has a chance to be great for us.”
Schedule Coming Together
The CAA released its conference schedule last week with the Dukes opening at the start of 2021 with a home-and-home series against Towson on Jan. 1 and Jan. 3. After that, JMU will play each team on back-to-back days either home or away.
O’Regan said the Dukes are also close to finalizing a non-conference schedule.
“It will be very soon,” he said. “It’s basically done, we just have to get the contracts signed.”
Teams are allowed to begin the season as early as Nov. 25, which is about two weeks later than originally scheduled.