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NCAA Women’s Lacrosse: James Madison has set the bar for mid-major programs. Anything is possible.

The Dukes took a “no heroes” approach, and it helped them win their first national championship in program history.

On Sunday afternoon, James Madison made history by winning its first women’s lacrosse national championship in school history.
Skyler Gilbert

STONY BROOK, N.Y. — Twenty-two point one seconds. That’s all the time that was left, as James Madison nursed a 16-15 lead in the national championship game.

Twenty-two point one seconds from history. Twenty-two point one seconds from turning the lacrosse world upside-down.

Molly Dougherty, James Madison’s freshman goalie, had just watched a shot hit her, then hit the LaValle Stadium turf with topspin to reduce the Dukes lead from two goals to one.

Drunken Boston College fans chanted her name from the end-zone seating behind her — “Molly... Molly...,“ dropping the pitch from high-to-low in singsong fashion — like you’d hear in a playoff NHL game. But she was unfazed.

“All we need is one,” she told her teammates. “One more.” One more draw control. One more defensive stop. One more save. Any would suffice, but it wouldn’t, couldn’t, shouldn’t be easy.

Boston College’s Sam Apuzzo — a wunderkind on offense, a maestro in the circle — had just assisted on the Tess Chandler goal to bring the Eagles within one. After setting up the proximate goal, Apuzzo and Boston College had a tepid celebration before she strutted back to her office. Whether it was against Syracuse or Stony Brook or Maryland, Apuzzo has shown a knack for delivering in crunch-time. She’s considered a Tewaaraton front-runner for a reason. Here on Long Island, her home, on the national championship stage? It seemed like this was her moment.

Sam Apuzzo, left, and Haley Warden, right, dueled it out in the circle with 22.1 seconds left. It was the most important draw of the season.
Screenshotted from WatchESPN

Before the final draw, Apuzzo had won six out of seven faceoffs over the final 10 minutes of the game.

Neither player, Apuzzo nor Haley Warden, won the draw clean, and the ball flew into the air toward the Boston College offensive end. At the top of the circle, the lanky Kristen Gaudian and Dempsey Arsenault jumped for the prize. The ball ricocheted off the crosse of Arsenault and right to the stick of JMU’s Haley Warden. Warden shoveled a pass wide to her teammate Hanna Haven and let out a sigh of relief.

“Just run!” Warden screamed. “Just run!”

Haven may not have heard her teammate but nonetheless obliged. She sprinted up the left sideline, stick in her left hand as she fended off the chasing Arsenault with her right. She ran all the way to the far corner and circled around the net.

The final horn sounded and James Madison, ranked No. 17 preseason by the media, ruled women’s lacrosse. It was the first time a Colonial Athletic Association school had ever NCAA champion in a spring sport.

NCAA Lacrosse: Women's Lacrosse Championship-James Madison vs Boston College
Senior defender Rebecca Tooker raises the national championship trophy after the Dukes’ victory.
Chris Bergmann-USA TODAY Sports

“No heroes.” That was James Madison head coach Shelley Klaes-Bawcombe’s locker room message before the game. “We play as a team.”

That isn’t to say that the Dukes don’t have heroes. They do.

With three and a half minutes left, Gaudian dropped the ball in the middle of the Boston College defense. Three Eagles surrounded her, but somehow Gaudian scooped it up, pivoted toward net and split two more defenders to score and put her team up 15-13 at the time. It was ridiculous and it was her 80th goal on the season. There’s a reason that Boston College defender Hannah Hyatt was employed on Sunday as a full-time Kristen Gaudian faceguard. She’s a Tewaaraton finalist and was named the 2018 CAA Player of the Year.

Kristen Gaudian is a hero.

With just over a minute left, Warden slipped from her defender to a quiet area in front of the Eagles goal. Teammate Katie Kerrigan threw her a pass and Warden promptly finished it, her ninth goal of the Final Four weekend. It gave the Dukes a 16-14 lead late. Warden was a difference-maker in all three zones for James Madison her whole career. In 2017 she was honored as CAA Player of the Year; in 2018 she was nabbed CAA Defensive Player of the Year. On Sunday, she was named the weekend’s Most Outstanding Player.

Haley Warden is a hero.

But “no heroes” is the philosophy and it’s abundantly apparent watching this team play. It’s a mantra that cuts deeper than individual impact (something of which James Madison obviously has plenty). It’s seen in the approach and the motive: “Don’t do it for yourself; do it for the team.”

Senior defender Corinne Schmidt was called for her second yellow card of the game with 24:26 to play.
Screenshotted from WatchESPN

No, this James Madison team fought for each other.

About 24 and a half minutes remained when the Dukes zone defense faced its greatest adversity of the game. Corinne Schmidt slid to guard Boston College’s Cara Urbank, who rolled to her right and then backpedaled toward the sideline. As Schmidt forced Urbank out of room, she accidentally put her crosse up high and it glanced Urbank’s face.

The nearby official blew her whistle and Schmidt was assessed a yellow card, her second of the day, which disqualified her from playing the rest of the day.

At first, Schmidt was heartbroken. As she ran to the sideline, the look on her face was torturous; there was so much pain. Of course there was. It was the final game of her career and the biggest of her life. This national championship at Stony Brook was just on the opposite shore of Long Island from her hometown of Bay Shore. And the Dukes had just watched their 8-6 lead turn into a 10-9 deficit. Schmidt’s emotion’s were running high.

After a couple of minutes of cooling down, Schmidt knew she had to be there for her teammates though.

“It would have been really easy for her to fall into herself and be upset and then be a distraction on the sideline,” Klaes-Bawcombe said. “But ... she had strength so her team could have strength. I think from that moment in the game, things changed for JMU and that’s when we took our run and that’s when we took charge of the game.”

Sure enough, James Madison’s defense played for her. For the two minutes after the penalty, Boston College’s offense was playing 7-on-6, but one would only have noticed if they counted. The Dukes penalty kill was everywhere. The slides were fast, the communication was crisp, and the Eagles couldn’t get anything to the inside. Their sense of urgency came from that selfless approach: they had to do it for Schmidt.

“We were playing for each other but we really had to play for her,” senior defender Rebecca Tooker, also from Long Island, said. “She’s been there from the beginning, the hard times, and the ups and downs, but we just really wanted to come together and just get it for her.”

After killing the penalty, James Madison buried three straight goals — Maddie McDaniel, Elena Romesburg and Gaudian — to go ahead 12-10. The Dukes stayed in the lead the rest of the way.

NCAA Lacrosse: Women's Lacrosse Championship-James Madison vs Boston College
It seemed as if two James Madison players were covering the ball all game long at LaValle Stadium. The zone was smothering.
Chris Bergmann-USA TODAY Sports

Zone defense isn’t for those looking for glory. Often the James Madison unit slides and rotates in such cohesion that individuals are indistinguishable.

“We’re all in it together as a team,” Tooker said. “We don’t really want to see each other as individuals.”

It’s a style of defense that is adored by some, loathed by others. Many “small schools” employ it, with Stony Brook perhaps best known for it (leading the nation in goals against average in five of the last six seasons). Navy plays zone defense; so does Syracuse, whose men’s basketball team might have the most famous zone in sports. Even North Carolina used zone from time to time this season.

But James Madison’s zone is special and over the weekend, it completely shut down two premier programs in North Carolina and Boston College. It is believed to be the first time in NCAA Division-I Women’s Lacrosse history that a team has won a national championship while strictly playing a zone.

“The type of zone that they play,” Eagles head coach Acacia Walker-Weinstein said. “They sort of bait you into thinking you know the middle is open and we made some of those mistakes and fell for that.”

Boston College committed 18 turnovers — “too many,” as Walker-Weinstein said — with five being charged to Kaileen Hart. For James Madison, though, no player was credited with causing more than two of the turnovers, while nine players caused at least one.

After North Carolina’s semifinal loss to James Madison, head coach Jenny Levy had the following analysis of the Dukes zone: “They play three low on the crease, so any time you put anything inside, your shooters are getting people up into their arms and up into their body in the middle, and they seem to protect the ball pretty well with two on the ball all the time.”

James Madison finishes the season with the No. 3 ranked adjusted defense in the nation, according to Analytics Lacrosse.

James Madison celebrates after the game. From left to right: freshman Daria Lucchesi, freshman Katie Checkosky, senior Kristen Gaudian and freshman Charlotte Haggerty.
Skyler Gilbert

At the end of Sunday’s game, ESPN’s play-by-play announcer John Brickley called James Madison a “Cinderella,” and it’s a word that gets tossed around anytime an unexpected champion emerges.

On face, this Dukes team checks all the boxes. Nobody believed in them. They were ranked outside the top-15 preseason. Their star player was a walk-on out of high school. It was their first Final Four in 18 years. They came from the Colonial Athletic Association.

But James Madison doesn’t self-identify as a “Cinderella,” as Dougherty said in the press conference.

“That seems like almost kind of a lie to say. That discredits everything everyone put in,” she explained. “It’s top to bottom a whole team effort from the 5 AM, early morning runs, to staying late after practice taking extra shots. That’s that’s what got us here and that’s what’s going to keep us going.”

And indeed, while this James Madison team wasn’t on the radar of many, maybe it should have been. The Dukes had made three straight NCAA Tournaments before this year. In 2017, they lost on the road to then-No. 1 North Carolina by two goals, on the road to then-No. 6 Penn State by three.

This team was close. With the depth and experience of this year’s senior class, of whom eight started in the national title game, they were ready to make the jump.

“When I was recruited here, one of the reasons I wanted to come here was because I wanted to take down the ACC, Big Ten, big name schools,” Romesburg said before the Final Four. “We took all the experience of playing these big-name schools, and now we’ve turned two-goal losses into victories.”

Head coach Shelley Klaes-Bawcombe is interviewed by LSN after Sunday’s championship.
Skyler Gilbert

For Shelley Klaes-Bawcombe, the James Madison championship was a long time coming.

From 1994 until 1997, she played for the Dukes, becoming a two-time all-American player herself. Throughout her four seasons as a player, they never ranked outside the top-10 in the NCAA rankings (there were far fewer teams then), and won a CAA championship her senior tear, but never made it deep into the NCAA Tournament.

Then after a stint at Hofstra as an assistant and then head coach, she tried for the James Madison job in 2002 but was passed over for Kellie Young. So she stayed with Hofstra. But over her tenure with the Pride — leading them to a program-record No. 7 ranking — it was the JMU job that she eyed the most. In the summer of 2006, Young was hired in a start-up job at Louisville and an opening was there for Klaes-Bawcombe at her alma mater. She returned to James Madison, where she’s been the last 12 years.

Klaes-Bawcombe has the perspective to see the whole transformation of James Madison Lacrosse through the years, even predating the NCAA’s inception of the sport in 1982.

“Fifty years strong!” she said. “Half my life I’ve been a collegiate coach now and I’ve made some big decisions to stay at James Madison when I’ve had opportunities to move on to do just this. And so it really is tremendous satisfaction.”

Walker-Weinstein of Boston College, one of the younger head coaches in women’s lacrosse has nothing but admiration for face of James Madison Lacrosse.

“She’s such an amazing coach and I think a lot of people have known that for a long time,” she said, after her own semifinal victory over Maryland.

In an Instagram post after the game, Stony Brook associate head coach Kim Hillier, who herself was an All-American player at Hofstra under Klaes-Bawcombe, had the following to say: “Congratulations on winning such a well deserv[ed] National Championship! You get kids to buy in and to FIGHT for everything!”

For the past decade at James Madison, the Dukes have been a great team, but for years the logistics of the NCAA Tournament prohibited success. The CAA was, and still is, a conference with two elite teams (JMU and Towson). Five years ago, the bracket expanded from 16 to 26 teams (it’s now 27), which effectively turned the CAA from a one-bid league to a two-bid league, allowing both James Madison and Towson to make the tournament regardless of who wins the championship game.

After winning the championship, Klaes-Bawcombe reflected on the fall of 2014, when this year’s senior class first arrived at James Madison.

“That year, our [current] seniors’ freshman year, the seniors were on a mission and they set the tone really early that they weren’t going to mess around,” she recalled. “Here you have this huge class of freshmen coming in and they were not scared. They were not intimidated. And the seniors were actually a little bit taken aback by the confidence and they didn’t understand how these freshmen could be this confident in such an unfamiliar environment.”

But that’s why Klaes-Bawcombe brought them in. Big personalities with lots of confidence? That’s an asset. That’s what she wanted. No, James Madison wasn’t raking in the top-100 recruits that Maryland or North Carolina were. But they fostered the types of players that Klaes-Bawcombe knew could fit into her system, players she could help mold into champions.

James Madison players cut the nets after winning their school’s first ever NCAA Women’s Lacrosse championship.
Skyler Gilbert

Now here we are. The women’s lacrosse world is upside-down. For the first time in the modern era, a mid-major school won the national championship (depending on how you view Ivy League lacrosse).

It’s a credit to the growth of parity in the sport. This season, four of the top-8 seeds in the NCAA field came from mid-major conferences. Stony Brook has been No. 1 most of the season, Navy made it to the championship last season, and here, James Madison reached the milestone.

“I hope it’s not a culmination,” Klaes-Bawcome said after the game.

It’s time to see if James Madison’s magic is replicable, or if it was a flash in the pan. This season, the Dukes had the luxury of playing the role of the underdog, and to some extent they, and the other mid-majors, always will. These schools lack the size and the traditional recruitment allure of the “Power Five” schools.

“Going into this game I’d say, yeah we were the underdogs,” Warden said. “But right now I just think that our hard work this whole entire season has really paid off and I’m happy we embraced that mentality.”

Will James Madison be able to win championships now that they aren’t the underdog? Who knows. Only one team wins each year. But make no mistake: a win for James Madison was a win for the growth of the sport of lacrosse.

“Everything is not perfect,” Klaes-Bawcombe said about the current state of lacrosse. “There’s a lot to clean up but we’re moving things in the right direction. We have more schools playing than ever, across all divisions. We are making great changes in our rules so that it attracts great fans. Those changes are also attracting other great athletes to want to choose our sport over others. Other communities are picking up the sport.

“So I just think the time is really great for our sport and I think when you have two schools like BC And JMU in the championship, I think that just shows the opportunity that’s out there and I think it’s going to continue to attract great talent to the sport of lacrosse.”

The positive effects of some of these rule changes (the 90-second shot clock, free motion, etc.), have been undeniable. “Stalling” in a traditional sense is a complete afterthought. It no longer exists.

But bigger than that, the rise to prominence of there peripheral programs, is instrumental to the outreach of any sport. It’s a counter-effect to the traditional elitist perception of Maryland, the Big Ten and the ACC.

Anybody can win now.

On Sunday, James Madison established itself as a champion. But it’s just the tip of the iceberg. The Dukes will be back. Mid-majors will be back. And lacrosse is better for it.