Mickey Dean still wonders if his team wasn’t ready to host a regional.
In 2015, the James Madison softball coach guided his midmajor program to its first national seed and regional host site. The Dukes, however, didn’t even reach the championship game and watched as North Carolina State defeated Fordham on their home field for a super regional berth.
“We felt we might have been ready last year, but maybe we hosted a regional too soon because we were a little shell-shocked when we walked out there and saw 2,000 fans and they were all rooting for us,” Dean said in a phone interview Tuesday.
“But this year, they’re a year older. They’ve had those experiences. So now they’re able to relax and play.”
The coach contends maturity — not the sparkling 1.08 team ERA or meticulous defense — is the strong point of this year’s JMU team. It’s what has brought the Dukes to a level they’ve never been and what Dean hopes will take them even further.
No. 7 seed JMU will host No. 10 seed LSU in its first super regional appearance beginning at 2 p.m. Friday at Veterans Memorial Park. The winner of the best-of-three Harrisonburg (Virginia) super regional advances to the Women’s College World Series, which would mark another milestone for the Dukes (49-4).
The super regional sold out for a capacity crowd of 1,450 within minutes Tuesday morning, and JMU announced Wednesday its plan for an additional 700 seats in left field and down the third base line. Nearly 1,800 fans attended last weekend’s regional.
“It’s very exciting, but we’re still hungry,” junior infielder Madyson Moran said. “We’ve done a great job this season of getting ourselves out there and proving that we belong.”
The Dukes proved themselves from the get-go, racking up a 7-2 record against ranked opponents in their nonconference schedule. They won two of their three games against Southeastern Conference opponents, which Dean said instilled in his players the confidence to go toe-to-toe with the Tigers (48-15).
JMU even posted a 3-1 mark against teams that qualified for super regionals, the lone blemish a 2-1 loss to No. 6 seed Alabama during opening weekend.
“They have a lot of respect from everyone in the country,” LSU coach Beth Torina said. “Everyone in the softball community understands what a good program James Madison is.”
After a dominant 18-1 run in Colonial Athletic Association play, the Dukes displayed their maturity in last weekend’s regional. It was no repeat of last year’s letdown — JMU swept the field by a combined score of 22-2 to advance to its first super regional.
The only uneasy moment of the weekend came when Longwood took an early 1-0 lead in the regional title game before the Dukes pounded out five runs over the final three innings.
Dean and his players, who breezed to 19 wins in their final 20 games, are happy that happened.
“It’s a good challenge,” sophomore pitcher/infielder Megan Good said. “I think it’s important that that happened in regionals, so we could get the experience of how to grind as a team and work through it.”
JMU is confident it has the tools to topple the Tigers, starting with its pitching staff. Good and left-hander Jailyn Ford have handled all but 12 innings in the circle this year, and they are among the top five nationally in ERA at 0.90 and 0.88.
They’re backed by a defense that, according to Excelle Sports, is the country’s best in defensive efficiency, which measures the number of balls in play that result in outs.
“The one thing that we have embraced: We understand championships are won by defense,” Dean said. “Our pitchers have done an extremely good job; our defense has been very good. We have not been perfect, but you know that you’re doing a good job when you’re able to make a mistake and overcome it on defense, and we’ve been able to do that.”
That elite level is a testament to what Dean has built during his four years in Harrisonburg. His teams have reset the program single-season wins record and reached the NCAA tournament every season since his first in 2013, claiming two CAA tournament titles in the process..
The Dukes have been there and done that. Now that they’re in unfamiliar territory, they believe the maturity they’ve developed along the way is their strongest asset.
“We’ve had seniors and juniors who have been here and have experienced this over a period of time,” Dean said. “I think that’s important with your program, is that you try to be consistent and get those experiences. Then eventually your team has matured enough to handle everything that’s going on.”