STONY BROOK, N.Y. — When it comes to women’s lacrosse, James Madison has had a season for the ages. A win over North Carolina? Check. A season sweep over Towson for the CAA title? Check. A dominant quarterfinal win over Florida to clinch the school’s second-ever berth to the NCAA Final Four? Check and check.
But despite all this, there are still people doubting this Dukes team. James Madison comes from a mid-major conference, at an athletic department still just rising to prominence. Before the season they were pegged by Inside Lacrosse as the No. 17 team in the country. Heck, their All-American attacker was a walk-on.
The Dukes still seem to be... kind of... you know...
“An underdog? Yeah, we know,” star attacker Kristen Gaudian said at Thursday practice.
Gaudian, the aforementioned former walk-on, has proven herself to doubters plenty of times before. She didn’t even start until her junior season, and now she’s among the nation’s five Tewaaraton finalists. By now, Gaudian is keen to the underdog role, a role in which her team has found plenty of success this season.
Exhibit A: the February 9 win against the UNC team they’ll face in the quarterfinals. In a cold, rainy and windy season-opening overtime win, Gaudian scored both the game-tying and game-winning goals. The Dukes made a “statement,” as senior attacker Elena Romesburg succinctly said.
But James Madison, even with its 20 wins, half of which have come against tournament teams, is aware of the narrative.
Mid-major schools don’t win women’s lacrosse national titles.
And in the past it’s been true. If you consider the Ivy a major conference in lacrosse (most would), then no mid-major program has done it on the women’s side in 30 years (and given the landscape of the sport when Temple won in 1988, there weren’t really such things as “conferences” as we know them today). But JMU’s approach isn’t to look at that history. Instead, it’s “why not us?”
“It’s a great position to be in. People kind of look over the underdog,” Gaudian said. “We can totally capitalize on the fact that people don’t understand that we’re the real deal and we’re here to win a national championship just like everybody else.”
Whereas Maryland and North Carolina have established legacies for national greatness with each program’s championship histories, James Madison has to prove itself every season. Head coach Klaes-Bawcombe knew that this season’s team, with seven to eight seniors in the starting lineup, was one to make a run, and they have.
“James Madison is not one of those teams that just automatically gets put back into the top-10 or top-20 year after year,” head coach Shelley Klaes-Bawcombe said. “Every year, we have to earn our way into the ranking through consistent effort, game after game, after game.”
The Dukes made the quarterfinals by beating the Florida Gators, 11-8, in the lowest-scoring of the four games last weekend. It’s highly unlikely that the game with the Tar Heels will be so defensive, but James Madison has shown that it can win any type of lacrosse game.
On offense, the Dukes have four players with at least 60 points and seven with at least 25 points. They run deep.
While James Madison wasn’t on the Final Four radar of any self-proclaimed lacrosse experts before the season — myself included in that — did the players expect to be spending their Memorial Day Weekend in Stony Brook?
“Yes,” Gaudian said, without hesitation. “We knew that we had the talent, we knew that we had the mental resilience to make it here as well.”
The Dukes certainly have the tools. If they hang tough on the draws and get clean looks against UNC goalie Taylor Moreno, the ride may not be over just yet.