Maddie McDaniel has been riding on cloud nine ever since Sunday afternoon when James Madison stunned the women’s lacrosse world by capturing the Division I national championship.
Head coach Shelly Klaes-Bawcombe had talked about that being the ultimate goal during the recruiting process, but McDaniel never imagined it would actually happen just two years after she arrived on the Harrisonburg, Virginia campus.
“It’s honestly been so surreal. I’ve spent the last three days just trying to process it all,” McDaniel said during a telephone interview with The Capital on Tuesday. “It didn’t really hit me until we got back here to Harrisonburg. Our bus was pulling into Sentara Park and there were lines of people waiting to greet the team.”
McDaniel, a sophomore attacker, played a prominent role as third-seeded James Madison edged No. 4 Boston College, 16-15, in the NCAA final at Kenneth P. LaVelle Stadium on the campus of Stony Brook University. She is one of three Severna Park residents on the James Madison roster along with junior defender Lauren DuVall and junior goalkeeper Ellie Harmeyer.
“When Shelley was recruiting me she had no doubt in her mind that this program could capture a national championship,” McDaniel said. “I truly believed that, but saying it and doing it are two different things. It’s just so awesome to show the whole lacrosse world the game doesn’t have go be dominated by the bigger schools from the major conferences.”
This was truly a dream season for the Dukes, who were led by nine seniors that comprised the winningest class in program history. James Madison finished with a 22-1 record with the lone loss coming to defending national champion Maryland, 15-12, way back on March 24.
JMU began the campaign by beating 2016 national champ and perennial powerhouse North Carolina, 15-14 in double overtime – sending a strong message it was a legitimate contender.
“We were undefeated during fall ball two years in a row while playing some of the best teams in the country so I knew we had the talent to compete,” Klaes-Bawcombe said. “When we opened up the season with the win over Carolina I felt like something special was happening.”
Klaes-Bawcombe, a Loch Raven High graduate who played at James Madison, said the seniors set the tone from the outset.
“I think the seniors led with great compassion and just made everything seem so easy,” she said. “Everything just felt right with this team, even the hard work. Every player on the team bought in 100 percent to the entire process and wanted to win so badly. This group was very consistent all year long.”
DuVall wholeheartedly agreed with that assessment.
“I think the seniors really paved the way for the success this season. They’re all great role models and so passionate for lacrosse. Our seniors gave everyone else on the team such great motivation to work hard on behalf of them,” she said.
James Madison went undefeated in the Colonial Athletic Association and did so in dominant fashion, winning four of six regular season games by an average of 14 goals. Towson, which was ranked Top 10 nationally most of the season and earned the eighth seed for the NCAA Tournament, was the only conference foe that challenged JMU, falling 17-16 in overtime during a regular season contest played at Johnny Unitas Stadium.
The Dukes defeated the Tigers a bit more easily when the rematch was held in the CAA Championship game, winning 16-10 within the friendly confines of Sentara Park.
“We really set ourselves up for success in the CAA by playing great teams like North Carolina and Maryland,” DuVall said. “When we won against UNC we realized that anything is possible and there was really no program we couldn’t hang with.”
While the NCAA Tournament selection committee showed respect for James Madison by issuing the No. 3 seed, there were some women’s lacrosse observers that felt that was too high.
“I remember reading some articles and seeing some Tweets saying we didn’t deserve that seed,” McDaniel said. “On the one hand, it was validation that those people that really counted recognized we had a strong team and a great season. On the other hand, there were still a lot of doubters and that just gave us the underdog mentality.”
James Madison simply proceeded to take down a steady string of pedigree programs, beating Virginia 15-12 in the first round and sixth-seeded Florida 11-8 in the quarterfinals. That set up a rematch with North Carolina in the semifinals with JMU posting a 15-12 victory.
Factor in the national championship game and James Madison concluded the season with a 6-0 record against schools from the powerful Atlantic Coast Conference.
“Honestly, I still haven’t quite digested all this. I’m still just so excited and cannot believe we are national champs,” DuVall said. “JMU is definitely going to get way more attention because of this. A lot of top players are going to consider playing lacrosse here now because they have seen that this program can compete at the highest level.”
McDaniel was a two-sport standout at Severn School, earning All-County honors from Capital Gazette Newspapers in both basketball and lacrosse. Loyola-Maryland was the only Division I school that offered a basketball scholarship so McDaniel ultimately chose to play lacrosse at the next level, choosing James Madison over Jacksonville, Navy and Oregon.
McDaniel came off the bench as a freshman and scored 19 goals to make the CAA All-Rookie Team. JMU had an opening on attack going into this season due to the graduation of Leah Monticello and initially freshman Katie Checkosky beat out McDaniel for the starting spot.
“I gained a lot of confidence last season and was ready for a bigger role this season,” McDaniel said. “When I found out that Katie was starting over me it did fuel my fire. It made me want to work even harder and I felt like I had to earn that job every single day in practice.”
McDaniel wound up starting 18 of 21 games and finished sixth on the team with 26 goals. The 6-footer primarily played in front of the cage within the 8-meter circle and was asked to be an inside finisher.
“My job was to make strong cuts, set screens and do whatever I could to create space for others,” she said. “I think my basketball IQ really helped me play that position because I had to anticipate where the ball was going to be and how to find open space. It was a lot like working to get position in the lane in basketball.”
Klaes-Bawcombe knew she had pulled a major coup when she landed McDaniel, whose size is uncommon in the women’s game.
“I think Maddie flew under the radar in the recruiting process. I remember her club coach described Maddie as a gentle giant,” the 13th-year head coah said. “I knew Maddie had great potential and would really blossom at the collegiate level, which she has.”
James Madison features some superb one-versus-one attackers in Kristen Gaudian (80 goals), Elena Romesburg (66 goals) and Hanna Haven (79 points). McDaniel provides balance to the offense by being there to score assisted goals, displaying improved stickwork as a sophomore along with an ability to finish with the left or right hand.
“Maddie is a very smart player who sees the game really well. She’s a big strong body and can catch anything inside the eight,” Klaes-Bawcombe said. “Maddie really learned how to use her body to be physical out on the field. She finally realized she is bigger and stronger than most defenders and can kind of post them up. She is also very adept at setting picks then popping off them.”
Boston College face-guarded James Madison offensive quarterback Katie Kerrigan (60 assists) and effectively prevented her from finding McDaniel on the crease. However, McDaniel got loose to score one of the biggest goals of the game, catching and finishing out front to tie the score at 10 at the 22:09 mark of the second half.
DuVall also enjoyed a breakout season, starting 22 of 23 games after seeing limited action off the bench as a sophomore. The former US Lacrosse All-American did not play at all as a freshman while making the transition from midfield to line defense.
“Lauren just got better and better as the year went along and played a key role in our defensive alignment,” Klaes-Bawcombe said. “Lauren is a very fundamentally-sound defender and really does not have a weakness to her game. She has good footwork, good balance and communicates really well. She plays extremely hard and with tremendous confidence.”
James Madison employs a unique zone defense that was a critical element of this season’s success. Klaes-Bawcombe started five line defenders instead of the usual four with two players on the crease, two on the wing and one up top.
“We call it the ‘Red Dog’ defense and it’s a really high-pressure zone that caused opponents a lot of problems,” DuVall said. “I thought our defense set the tone all season. We had a lot of caused turnovers and were able to give the ball back to the offense time after time.”
DuVall played on the crease along with Emma Johnson and their job was to pressure the feeders behind the net and pick up cutters.
“Lauren was very tough and aggressive inside as far as clogging the crease while she and Emma did a great job of preventing the assisted goals,” Klaes-Bawcombe said. “Lauren really became a huge asset in the clearing game, using that midfield ability she had in high school.”
DuVall was credited with two ground balls and a caused turnover in the championship game, bringing her season totals in those respective categories to 23 and nine. She made a huge play on Boston College’s opening possession.
“BC started off with a set play that we were ready for – a fake flip that happened in Lauren’s area,” Klaes-Bawcombe said. “Lauren read the play and disrupted it, which really set the tone early that we had come to fight.”
Harmeyer played in 15 games with 11 starts while splitting time with Molly Dougherty. The Severna Park High graduate stopped 49 shots and allowed 84 goals while posting an 8-1 record.
Harmeyer made the CAA All-Rookie team as a freshman and was the JMU Courage Award winner as a sophomore.
Anne Arundel County products have played prominent roles in the development of James Madison women’s lacrosse. South River graduate Megan Riley was a two-time All-American, earning first team honors as a senior in 1999. Jess Marion, another South River product, was a first team All-American in 2000 and matched Riley by being named CAA Player of the Year.
Marion and Annapolis High alum Amy Brew, a two-time All-American, were key members of the only other JMU squad that reached the national semifinals – although that came in an era when only 12 teams made the tournament and top seeds earned a bye into the quarterfinals. Goalkeeper Morgan Kelly (St. Mary’s High) was a third team All-American in 2010.
“James Madison has a proud tradition and has been consistently in the Top 10 going back to when I was an athlete here in the mid-1990s,” Klaes-Bawcombe said. “I always felt like this program was capable of great things.”
However, Klaes-Bawcombe is the first to acknowledge that actually reaching the pinnacle of Division I women’s lacrosse is a major game-changer. “We’ve proven that a program out of the CAA can capture a national championship,” she said.
Now the Dukes go from being the hunter to the hunted, with a big target on their backs going into the 2019 campaign.
“It will be important for us to keep that chip on our shoulder. People will say the senior class was what carried us and we can’t step up and do it again,” McDaniel said. “We just have to maintain that mentality that we have to constantly prove ourselves.”
Women’s lacrosse claimed just the fourth national championship in James Madison athletics history, joining football (2004, 2016) at the FCS level and field hockey (1994).