With women leading the way, JMU athletics takes six CAA championships in a pandemic year

Redshirt junior infielder Lynsey Meeks celebrates as the Dukes clinch a berth to the Women’s College World Series. Photo courtesy of JMU Athletics.

By Savannah Reger, contributor

In unprecedented times, the JMU softball team delivered an entirely precedented Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) title, providing sports fans with a sense of much-needed normalcy. (The softball team is now in unprecedented territory, however, playing No. 1 Oklahoma at noon today in its first-ever trip to the Women’s College World Series).

A year ago, as summer crept on and the 2020-21 school year neared, there was no telling what the future held for JMU athletics. Fall sports programs in the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) began dropping like flies, beginning with football and moving on down the list. By mid-August, JMU had no choice but to postpone all fall sports to the spring with the hope by then it would be easier to play safely. 

By the recent Memorial Day weekend, however, JMU teams had won six CAA championships, with three additional teams making the conference title game – the result of much dedication and hard work.

“Our administration has crafted together a way to put these athletes in successful situations,” said Curt Dudley, JMU Director of Broadcast Services. “I think this year has validated even further what JMU has, that they can win in these uncertainties.

A significant theme in this successful year for JMU athletics is that five of the six team titles were won by women’s teams – softball, lacrosse, tennis, golf and swim & dive. While it’s common for fans to prefer men’s sports over women’s, the women of JMU demanded to be seen and heard.

In addition, field hockey and women’s basketball both made it to the CAA title game, and freshman track & field athlete Shelby Staib made it to the regional meet in the javelin throw.

Unusual year, usual results

Prior to the pandemic, Dukes teams had enjoyed dominance in multiple sports. By continuing that trend during COVID-19, the athletic programs brought fans a sense of normalcy. The teams’ roads to this year’s titles, however, were far from normal.

“It didn’t feel like we could be a team for a part of the season,” said lacrosse head coach Shelley Klaes, who led JMU to its fourth consecutive CAA title, and 13th overall. “We couldn’t be in the locker room together … Once we started testing on game days and people started getting vaccinated we could do more things and that’s when I think we started to connect more.”

JMU sports didn’t begin until the men’s and women’s basketball seasons, when the Dukes made their comeback playing in the new Atlantic Union Bank Center, in front of a limited number of spectators. From there came a flood of JMU athletics. During March and April, teams that normally compete in three sports seasons – fall, winter, and spring – were all in season at once.

Juggling the university’s 17 Division I athletics programs is challenging even without pandemic protocols and frequent postponements. That makes the championships won by six teams even more remarkable.

“The fact that JMU supported all 17 sports at once is a fact of its own,” Klaes said. “I think the success shows that we can support just about every team we have and that’s special.”

Behind a young team, women’s golf brought home its first CAA title since 2013 and put the Dukes in the NCAA Regional Tournament. 

And swim & dive made sure lacrosse wasn’t the only sport to pick up its fourth consecutive conference crown. The team’s seniors became the first class in program history to win the title all four years. 

The entire JMU nation celebrated the women’s tennis victory over William & Mary to win the CAA title and made their way to the NCAA tournament once again.

The programs Dukes’ fans can always rely on to bring home a CAA crown – men’s soccer and softball – did just that. The men’s soccer team won two games in penalty kicks to advance the NCAA tournament, while softball cruised past the CAA field en route to the Women’s College World Series.

“It starts with careful and patient planning to give these athletes success,” Dudley said. “When an athlete comes to JMU, they have all the resources necessary to be successful. They have to put in the effort as well, but they have these programs in place to take advantage of.”

Editors note: the original version of this story incorrectly identified the year of softball player Lynsey Meeks in the photo caption. It has been corrected.

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