JMU Softball Preview: Knoxville Regional

When JMU softball announced Megan Good’s season-ending injury before opening day, the Dukes’ chances at making their first Women’s College World Series took a major hit. Despite losing a three-time All-American, JMU battled its way to a CAA regular season title, a 42-12 record, a nearly flawless 19-2 mark in CAA regular season play and a spot in the NCAA Tournament via an at-large bid.

While nobody is betting on the Dukes to win the tournament, they’ll head to Knoxville with a legitimate shot to advance to their second Super Regional in three years. To get there, JMU needs to advance past Monmouth, Ohio (a team the Dukes have seen this season) and No. 10 Tennessee, the host of the regional. Let’s take a look at how the Dukes stack up against their three foes.

Monmouth (32-14, 19-1 MAAC, 114 RPI)

How They Got Here: The Hawks won the MAAC to earn an automatic bid into the tournament. Monmouth cruised through the MAAC in the regular season, earning a 19-1 record before knocking off Manhattan and Fairfield in the conference tournament. The Stags battled to a 3-2 loss in 14 innings before falling 5-1 to hand Monmouth the conference crown.

Best Players: Katie Baron leads a relatively balanced lineup, which features four players with at least seven home runs on the season. Baron, a senior, leads the team with eight home runs to go with her 34 RBIs. Amber Wozniak leads the squad with 36 RBIs. Monmouth ranked No. 1 in the MAAC in home runs with 39.

In the circle, the Hawks lean hard on senior Amanda Riley. As Riley goes, Monmouth goes. She tossed all 28 innings, including the 14-inning marathon against Fairfield, in MAAC tournament. Last year, she threw 37 innings in the MAAC tournament, while striking out 37 batters. Riley is a stud (1.98 ERA), and she’s hopeful to end her career on a strong note.

Contender or Pretender? Pretender. Pitching depth is crucial when trying to advance in the NCAA Tournament, and Monmouth just doesn’t have it. When a team only throws one legitimate pitcher into the circle, that pitcher better be an All-American level talent. Even then, NCAA Tournament hitters are good enough to make adjustments to get a few runs on the nation’s best pitchers. I like Monmouth’s hitting depth and am impressed with Riley’s career numbers against MAAC competition, but the Hawks went 13-13 against teams outside the MAAC and were outscored 28-2 in three games against ranked opponents. Expect Monmouth to get demolished by Tennessee on Friday and quickly show themselves as a pretender.

Ohio (38-15, 20-3 MAC, 55 RPI)

How They Got Here: After starting the season 9-12, things really turned around for the Bobcats after they stormed back from five-run deficit in the sixth inning against JMU. The Bobcats ended up winning 9-7 in nine innings to stun the Dukes and send the themselves into conference play on a high note. Ohio went 20-3 in MAC regular season play before allowing just one run in four MAC tournament victories to punch its ticket to the Knoxville Regional.

Best Players: Five Bobcats have at least eight homers, but Ohio is spearheaded by two players. Alex Day has 12 homers and 44 RBIs and Mikayla Cooper has a solid 11 home runs to go with 43 RBIs. Cooper’s batting average sits at .343 and Day’s rests comfortably at .344. The two have nearly identical stats and make Ohio’s lineup one that’ll capture the attention of everyone in the Knoxville Regional. Much like Monmouth, the Bobcats rely heavily on one pitcher. Senior Danielle Stiene is the only Bobcat with over 100 innings pitched, she’s thrown 212.2, and her 1.51 ERA ranks 33rd nationally. She’s an ace with the strikeout numbers to prove it. Her 257 strikeouts give her an 8.46 K/7, which proves critical in the NCAA Tournament. With the season on the line against the best teams in the country, dialing up a strikeout with runners on base is a necessary skill — Stiene has it.

Contender or Pretender? Pretender. Yep, I just went on a rant about Stiene only to tell you the Bobcats aren’t advancing out of this regional. Once again, I think it’s imperative that teams have more than one elite pitching option. Despite a powerful lineup, Stiene’s talents and a strong finish to the season, the Bobcats lack multiple pitching threats. While Stiene has enough to lead Ohio through a MAC schedule, she won’t have nearly enough to get past teams like Tennessee and JMU.

JMU (42-12, 19-2 CAA, 25 RPI)

How They Got Here: Despite not having Good, the Dukes’ roster is still loaded with talent. The impressive freshman season of pitcher Payton Buresch (1.69 ERA, 18-5 record, nine complete games) helped the Dukes deal with the loss of Good and gave the team a phenomenal complement to Odicci Alexander. A 19-2 regular season CAA record and key non-conference wins over Long Beach State and California ensured a pair of losses to Hofstra in the CAA Tournament wouldn’t keep the Dukes from the NCAA Tournament.

Best Players: As mentioned previously, Buresch and Alexander (2.15 ERA, 24-5 record, 206 strikeouts) lead the Dukes in the circle. At the plate, JMU smokes more home runs per game than any team in the country. The Dukes can mash and three players lead the way. Alexander has 16 long balls, Kate Gordon has 13 to go with a .412 batting average and senior Morgan Tolle crushed a JMU single-season record 18 home runs. JMU’s pitching isn’t always perfect against top competition, but the Dukes’ bats always show up.

Contender or Pretender: Contender. I sound like a broken record, but I think teams need at least two pitchers to advance in the NCAA Tournament. The Dukes have two solid options in Buresch and Alexander. Coupled with a lineup that hits more home runs than any team in the country, and JMU poses a legitimate threat to Tennessee.

Tennessee (45-12, 14-10 SEC, 8 RPI)

How They Got Here: The Volunteers play in the SEC.

Best Players: Meghan Gregg is a superstar. Gregg blasted 16 home runs to go with 67 RBIs during her impressive senior campaign. Her RBI total ranks third nationally. For a team other than Tennessee to get out of the Knoxville Regional, they’ll need to limit Gregg. Sophomore Chelsea Seggern also tears the cover off the ball and ranks 10th nationally with 62 RBIs. The duo has knocked in a combined 129 runs and should strike fear into opposing pitchers.

In the circle, Tennessee has two strong pitchers in sophomore Caylan Arnold (2.10 ERA) and junior Matty Moss (2.51 ERA). Arnold (207 Ks in 196.1 innings) is more of a strikeout pitcher and acts more like the team’s ace, while Moss is more than serviceable as the second option. The Vols are a complete team.

Contender: Contender. If you’re hosting a regional, you’re a contender. Tennessee’s depth both offensively and in the circle makes the Volunteers the favorite in the Knoxville Regional. Given Tennessee’s conference schedule, the Volunteers are prepared for anything the NCAA Tournament can throw at them.

Prediction: Tennessee Advances

I went back and forth on this, and think JMU and Tennessee will meet with undefeated records after making quick work of Ohio and Monmouth. I believe JMU will take one game from the Vols, but ultimately fall short in three contests against Tennessee. I love JMU’s lineup, but I think the Vols hold the advantage in the circle. While Alexander and Buresch are some of the best pitchers the CAA has to offer, they’re a year away from carrying the team to a Super Regional. When the Dukes add Megan Good back into the mix next season, they’ll make the Women’s College World Series. JMU faithful just need to wait one more year for the Dukes to reach the promised land.

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