HARRISONBURG — It’s rare for volleyball teams to have a weekend off once the season begins.
Most schools fill up non-conference schedules with a variety of tournaments, playing three or four matches in a weekend against a wide range of competition. However, James Madison volleyball was stuck in Harrisonburg last week after Hurricane Irma canceled the Dukes’ trip to Florida for the Miami/FIU Invitational.
The natural disaster put a momentary pause on the Dukes’ best start since 1984.
JMU is a perfect 9-0 entering today’s Colonial Athletic Association opener at William & Mary at 7 p.m., and the players are itching to face someone other than themselves for the first time in two weeks.
“We were all really excited to play, but we knew we couldn’t do anything about that,” senior Taylor Austin said. “We just came in every day for practice, ready to go, same mindset, but obviously we are so excited to play this weekend.”
JMU is off to this hot start despite losing one of the best players in program history in two-time CAA Player of the Year Janey Goodman to graduation. However, in Goodman’s absence, the Dukes have evolved into a more balanced offensive unit that has kept its first nine opponents off balance.
Coach Lauren Steinbrecher said her veteran core was motivated to prove to opponents that JMU’s offense could still thrive without Goodman dominating the stat sheet.
“Obviously, Janey was a complete stud and an amazing player for us, but I think our team was excited to show that together we can do some things without necessarily it being the Janey Goodman show,” Steinbrecher said. “All of our returners have gotten a lot better and are each carrying a piece of that load, and it’s actually tougher to defend than just having everyone key on Janey.”
Junior outside hitter Bryn Recker leads the Dukes with 96 kills, but five different players have led the Dukes in kills during a match this season and five have posted at least 10 kills in a match. Recker said the diversity of Madison’s attack has opened up the court for JMU’s hitters to find space to spike the ball.
“It definitely opens the block up since they’re not setting up on one person and they don’t really know where to go,” Recker said. “Our setters are doing awesome, too, moving the ball around the net. So that really makes it difficult to read where the ball is going to go.”
JMU’s offense has been complemented by the defensive play of Austin, the reigning CAA Defensive Player of the Year. The Ashburn native has already been named the CAA Defensive Player of the Week all three weeks the Dukes have been in action and has been named MVP in two of the three tournaments Madison played during the non-conference season.
Austin has already compiled 176 digs through 31 sets, a little behind her pace from last year when she accumulated 684 digs, the second-highest total in program history for a single season. Her athleticism and flexibility has been a critical part of her success the past three seasons, but Steinbrecher said she took the next step over the summer by improving upon her serve, the one weak area the coach saw in Austin last season.
“The biggest improvement is in her serve, that was the only part of her game that wasn’t elite last year,” Steinbrecher said. “Her passing continues to improve, her defense is unbelievable … she’s an incredible athlete and the plays that she makes are a lot of fun to watch. Her leadership going into the captain role this year, she’s just been a spark plug and a rock for our team as well.”
Austin downplayed the importance of her leadership, saying her teammates were self-motivated over the summer, so she didn’t have to be a vocal leader to inspire them to work harder.
“You do have to take up that leadership role, but individually on our team, we have a lot of players that know we have to be in the gym every day,” Austin said. “There really wasn’t a lot to have to say. Really, everyone took it upon themselves to get in the gym and do what they had to do to be champions this year.”
The Dukes are the defending CAA champions and swept the Tribe last season, but Recker said she enjoys how competitive the conference is on a yearly basis because it forces JMU to not take any opponent lightly. Austin said she is excited to begin the league schedule because the familiarity with every other team brings a new energy to each match.
“For me and I think everyone else, what’s fun about CAA play is that you know everyone,” Austin said. “To me, it’s like family, you’re going out and battling against people you’re playing against every year, so it’s fun to see what everyone is made of [this season].”