Photo from JMU Athletics
By Kyle Koso
Thanks to a scheduling tweak authored by the home office of the Colonial Athletic Association, the James Madison volleyball program had last weekend off, giving the Dukes a chance to take a moment and reflect.
So far, it’s a bright and shiny start to the 2021 campaign.
Working out the kinks with a young roster and pushing through the disruptions from last season, JMU currently sits 9-3 overall, dashing off to a 3-1 mark in league play and looking more than capable of reaching the 20-win plateau for the sixth straight year under head coach Lauren Steinbrecher (not including the COVID-compromised slate in 2020). Primary positives include a balanced offensive attack, some stiff defense, and recent evidence that the team can handle stressful moments.
All three of its CAA wins took five sets, two at Delaware and one at home versus College of Charleston. That’s where you can see the youthful roster trying to get comfortable, steps forward and steps back.
“Well, that warped coach’s mindset is to usually be a lot more frustrated with the things we could have done better, and you hate to lose. I think it shows we have a lot of things we can clean up,” said Steinbrecher, who guided JMU to the NCAA tournament in 2016 and 2017. “This is a unique year. We are super deep, and everyone is pretty much at the same skill level. Usually, I have players who are quite a bit better than others, so it’s been interesting trying to figure out the best pieces, how to use them and when to set them.
“We are definitely getting warmer, if you will, to what our best lineup is, and we certainly have to be a team that is firing from all positions on the court. We want to run a balanced offense, and that’s something we worked on.”
Junior Sophia Davis is a two-way menace, leading the team in kills (126) with a .340 hitting percentage, to go with 1.36 blocks per set, which in the national Top 40. Classmate Chloe Wilmoth has 114 kills and sophomore Miette Veldman has 116 kills, making the Dukes hard to decode. Another junior, Caroline Dozier, is the primary setter (9.29 per set) and the program is quickly developing two libero/defender assets in freshmen Jaydyn Clemmer and Madilyn O’Toole.
If the plan holds, this core group can have three full seasons together, with Steinbrecher’s obvious strengths as a recruiter likely to keep the squad’s depth in sturdy condition. She stated that it’s tough to connect traits of this year’s team to the NCAA tourney units of 2016-17; some years are set up to go great and fizzle, while others look a bit bleak but then eventually surprise. For now, the culture feels right, and the team’s balanced attack and resilient defense are also positive markers.
“Point scoring, we are where we need to be,” she said. “Traditionally, for whatever reason, this program has been a good serve-and-defend, good blocking team. First-ball sideout and passing is where we put most of our work. We’re doing a good job making good strong disciplined blocking moves and digging around it.”
Of course, plenty of hurdles lurk in the shadows, which should keep James Madison sharp and aware going forward. They’ll need to quickly get back up to game tempo after this break (no matches between Sept. 26 and Oct. 9). Oddly, opponents have rung up more overall kills (although the Dukes have a significantly better hitting percentage), and laboring to finish off Delaware was a little odd, as the Blue Hens are 6-9 overall.
Very much in the way of progress is Towson, the preseason choice to win the CAA and currently in possession of a 16-2 record. The Tigers are back-to-back league champs (including COVID’s 2020 shortened run) and in the past seven-plus seasons stand 172-47 overall.
“Over the 11 years I’ve been here, it’s kind of changed and moved around. Charleston was super hot, Hofstra has been up there and has some really nice players who can terminate and help them win championships. And 2019 was the year for Towson,” Steinbrecher added. “Last year was brutal, because we didn’t get to play them at all, and for them to win the conference when we didn’t get a chance at them was tough.
“This year, we’re extra excited for the opportunity … Elon is good, and in our conference anyone can win on a given night, which makes it fun. Yeah, we are looking forward to that match.”
NIVC Note: We will be releasing important information on the 2021 NIVC this week.
We are thrilled to be back in action for the fourth time; previous winners are Ole Miss (2017), Iowa State (2018) and Georgia Tech (2019). The event is produced by Triple Crown Sports, which fuels the TC NIT club event over President’s Day Weekend, as well as college events including the Preseason and Postseason WNIT and the men’s and women’s Cancun Challenge.