May 18 / jmusport

Guest Post: JMU Softball is Poised to Make a Run

webcoverChase Kiddy is a JMU alum living in working in the ‘burg. He’s been fortunate enough to catch many of JMU softball’s games live and in person, so he agreed to write a tourney preview for us. Give him a follow at @chasekiddy if your own the twitters. 

So here we are. It’s a warm Wednesday in the Valley, and JMU softball is playing late into May. Again.

This time, though, it’s a little different. This morning, the Dukes weren’t basking in the Valley sun, rolling out of bed with nothing but J’s Bagels on their minds. Instead, they were flying out of Dulles down to Texas, where they’ll play in 15th-seeded Baylor’s Waco regional.

Let’s get this out of the way early. JMU (and Minnesota) got screwed out of regional bids. It’s not an all-time sports travesty or anything, but the seeding is noticeably odd. I’m not going to cry. We shouldn’t pout and send nasty tweets to the NCAA. But it’s worth being said, out loud, that this seeding is a bit silly.

I want to be fair to the committee. This year’s group placed a mega-premium on quality wins, and that clearly impacted the Dukes’ regional selection. A lot of it isn’t even really anyone’s fault; teams that were supposed to be good wins for JMU ended up being duds. The only really great win JMU ended up with by year’s end was Megan Good’s 1-0 shutout win over Auburn.

With that being said, it’s funny to watch a team like Kentucky — a 36-17 team with no impressive non-conference wins that lost SEC series to the likes of Ole Miss and Georgia, among others, — prepare to host a regional, while the Dukes fly halfway across the country.

But why spend so much time crying over spilt milk? The regionals have been decided for three days now. Where’s the value in it?

It’s worth noting that JMU is a team that, on occasion, will play angry. By now, maybe you’ve heard of this Megan Good character that dons the purple jersey. Megan, in particular, is a player who it seems like physically changes her demeanor when she gets pissed off about something. I’ve seen it dating back to last season, and I saw it as recently as last Friday, when Megan took a line drive off her leg early in the championship game against Hofstra. Mickey motioned for Cici to head to the bullpen and start warming up, as a precaution; Megan responded by shaking him off and adding five or six miles per hour on her fastball for the next two innings.

Everyone knows about Megan. There are limitless ways to quantify her greatness, from tossing her record around (she’s 36-1) to going through her pitching stats (0.48 ERA, 14 complete game shutouts, and 8.12K/7) to listing all of the ridiculous conference and school records she’s set this year. That’s before you even get into her batting numbers — she hits .399 and slugs .679 — or the completely underappreciated rate at which she takes walks, because nobody knows how to pitch to her.

I think the thing I appreciate the most about Megan’s game, though, is the Jordan-esque quality of her greatness. She shines brightest in the toughest moments. I think we’ll get a chance to see some of that this weekend, down on the fetid plains.

For the rest of the team, here are some bullet points you should know, if you’re late to the party:

  • JMU has two separate pitching batteries involving three freshman, and they never cross streams. Freshman Kierstin Roadcap, who’s from Turner Ashby (the same Rockingham County school that gave us Nikki Newman and Kirby Burkholder), always catches for Megan. There’s also freshman Odicci Alexander, JMU’s No. 2, who always throws to freshman Kate Gordon. (Gordon is also from the Valley — she went to Page County.)

    In back-to-back game scenarios, JMU might pitch the Good-Roadcap battery, then pitch the Alexander-Gordon battery. But I’ve noticed over the last few weeks that, sometimes, JMU will get up big in the first couple of innings and swap out Alexander for Good to preserve Megan’s arm for the following game. Even in these scenarios, they swap Kate in for Kierstin. At this point in the season, it’s a chemistry thing. Roadcap earned all-rookie honors from the CAA this season, but Gordon — who won Virginia softball’s State Player of the Year award three consecutive times in high school — has been quite good, too. She even had a walk-off RBI single against Elon two weeks ago.

  • Odicci Alexander, who you’ll hear called “Cici” by teammates and game attendees, is the No. 2 pitcher for JMU, and her development has been instrumental to JMU’s active 19-game winning streak. In the middle of the year, I did a long piece over on my blog about the potential limitations for this team, and I listed the pitching behind Megan as a primary concern. Cici is quite good — she did win Rookie of the Year in the CAA, after all — but she is still susceptible to mistakes, as any freshman is. At times, she leaves her fastball hanging over the plate, and she hasn’t developed as many pitches as Megan has.

    The good news is that, over the month of April, she was as impressive as she’s been all season.

    Behind the Good/Alexander combo, the pen is JMU’s only real weakness. JMU has gotten zero consistency out of its relievers over the course of the season, and there’s no real reason to think that’ll start now, in the heat of the playoffs. For a little while, Mickey seemed to make a concerted effort to try to rebuild the confidence of Jessica McCabe, who is JMU’s primary reliever out of the pen. By the time the Dukes had reached the heart of the CAA schedule, though, he seemed to more or less abandon the idea of a functional bullpen, opting for the relative consistency that Good and Alexander could provide, albeit at the cost of a higher workload. McCabe had 13 appearances through the first seven weeks of the season; she’s had only four since April 1.

    The takeaway point is this: If Megan and Cici stay in the circle, JMU can square off against anyone in the country. But if a team cracks the starters and battles through to the bullpen, the Dukes could be in trouble.

  • Since the preseason, Coach Dean has highlighted the depth of this team as a particularly special facet of this JMU team. But I think they hit better than last year’s team, too. The emergence of speedy freshman Cambry Arnold, who typically bats in the 2-hole, gives JMU a lot of malleability in the world of small ball. The Ichiro-esque consistency of leadoff batter Morgan Tolle, the sinewy power hitting of Megan, and the RBI machine of Taylor Newton rounds out the top half of the order. Typically, if Megan is pitching, Cici bats as the designated player in the five-hole; when Cici pitches, Megan is the DP, but she stays third in the order.

    JMU’s depth and versatility gives the Dukes a lot of options when they bat. Particularly, you’ll notice Coach Dean make liberal use of pinch runners, especially when Megan gets on base/in scoring position. You’ll also notice Mickey’s affinity for swapping in folk hero/power hitter Jessica Mrozek into the lineup for Arnold in two-out situations. Cambry is primarily a slap-batter who excels at advancing runners and, often times, reaching base on plays that should probably be putouts. (She’s really fast.) However, in two-out situations, Mickey will drop Mrozek in as a pinch hitter. This scenario generally ends with Jess blasting a home run into the stratosphere.

Like the CAA tournament, the regionals are double-elimination pods that whittle groupings down to a two-team championship round. This means that JMU, which shouldn’t have too much trouble with Oregon State on Friday, will likely match up against the host Baylor Bears on Saturday. The loser will play an elimination game later on Saturday; the championship round will be on Sunday, and feature Saturday’s winners.

Baylor is, to be blunt, kind of unimpressive for a regional host. Its pitching is good, but not great. Its offense is centered around speed and slap-hitting, which may take some time to adjust to for JMU. Ultimately, though, JMU is a visibly better and more dynamic team. Baylor has some nice wins, but most of them are from early in the season, when the Bears were playing their best ball. More recently, they got knocked out of the winner’s bracket by Oklahoma State in the first round of the Big 12 tournament. Recall that, back in February, JMU beat the Cowgirls 5-2. Assign whatever amount of worth you feel is appropriate there.

In short, JMU should win the Waco regional and advance to play a beatable Arizona team in the Super Regional.

JMU has steadily increased its place in the softball universe over the last few years. In 2015, JMU hosted its first-ever regional. In 2016, it hosted its first ever super regional. If that trajectory continues, the next step is a berth to the Final 8  — the Women’s College World Series. That round features the eight teams that win the next weekend’s best-of-3 Super Regional series.

JMU has the talent to get there. The pitching is dominant, the hitting is more than capable, and the Dukes will always have the best player on the field, regardless of who they play. A Waco regional isn’t necessarily the way the team, or the fans, wanted to start the 2017 postseason. But with a very winnable path in front of JMU, at this point, the road ahead is all Dukes fans should be concentrated on. The Dukes are legitimate national championship contenders.

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