Laurel resident Emma Johnson was just glad to be on the women’s lacrosse team last year as a freshman at James Madison University, according to her coach.
This year, Johnson was a sophomore leader on defense and she started every game for the Dukes, who defeated Boston College, 16-15, on May 27 for the Division I NCAA championship.
“She improved her intensity on the field,” said JMU head coach Shelley Klaes-Bawcombe, who is from Glen Arm and went to Loch Raven High. “She became a clear presence on defense. She was actively involved in problem solving. That started in the fall. She is just getting better every year.”
It was the first national title for JMU in women’s lacrosse and was a rare crown for a school not among the power five NCAA conferences.
The Colonial Athletic Association champion Dukes title came at Stony Brook on Long Island and before a national television audience on ESPNU. Johnson had several family members at the game, including her parents.
“It was unbelievable,” said Johnson, a graduate of Atholton High School. “I was saying to my parents earlier today the atmosphere of alumni that came to support us … that was the biggest thing for me, the support of the alumni.”
JMU was aided by a non-conference schedule that saw the Dukes beat powerhouse North Carolina in the season opener in double overtime.
The Dukes were unbeaten in CAA play, defeating Towson 17-16, in overtime, during the regular season and then beating the Tigers 16-10 in the CAA championship contest at James Madison.
The road to a national title may have been paved a little smoother when Boston College stunned powerhouse Maryland in the national semifinals two days before the title game.
JMU ended the year 22-1 overall, with the only loss coming in College Park to the Terps, 15-12, on March 24. After that defeat, the Dukes won their next 15 games, and they held off a late rally by Boston College in the championship game.
“It was amazing to see BC come out with that win over Maryland,” said Johnson, who attended Gorman Crossing Elementary and Murray Hill Middle School. “We were both newcomers, having never won a national title.”
Johnson and the JMU defense were challenged in the closing minutes when Boston College increased the pressure trying to tie the game.
“Keeping our zone really compact was key,” Johnson said. “Don’t make any risky plays, make smart decisions. BC was so fast and so aggressive.”
A CAA all-rookie player in 2017, Johnson was among the team leaders with 44 groundballs this season and she caused 34 turnovers.
She ranks 18th at JMU in her career after just two seasons with 55 caused turnovers.
She also provided stability on the defense and was one of just two sophomores who started on a regular basis.
“This year, she was way more vocal about problem solving,” Klaes-Bawcombe said. “Getting all five defenders on the same page doesn’t just happen by accident.”
Johnson was one of 10 players on the roster from Maryland and the only one from Howard County. Another top sophomore for JMU was attacker Maddie McDaniel, who is from Severna Park and played at The Severn School.
The drive from the Baltimore area to JMU in Harrisonburg, Virginia is about three hours. And that has been good news for the Dukes program.
“Baltimore has been our bread and butter,” said Klaes-Bawcombe, a former JMU star who finished her 12th season at the school as coach. “The area produces well-rounded players. It is a hop, skip and jump from JMU. Parents can come in and out in a day.”
The national title began a memorable spring for Johnson, an all-county player at Atholton. JMU arrived back on campus a few hours after winning the national title and was greeted by about 50 fans.
The next day, Johnson, majoring in intelligence analysis, drove home to Laurel and then left for a JMU study abroad program in Ireland on May 30.
It is the first trip out of the country for Johnson, who will spend about three weeks studying some of the civil strife in the region.
She heard from a lot of high school friends and teachers before she left her neighborhood.
“The support I am getting from my high school is great,” she said.