HARRISONBURG — Sean O’Regan stopped the action and lined up the James Madison women’s basketball team on the baseline to run.
The Dukes’ second-year coach was not pleased that one of his players had given up on a defensive drill after the ball rolled out of bounds instead of continuing on as if the ball had stayed in play. Right before he sent his players on their run across the court, O’Regan told them “we do not give up on the play until we hear a whistle.”
There was a different edge to O’Regan at Tuesday’s practice, JMU’s first of the fall season. He was perhaps tougher on the players than normal this early in the season, but with the Dukes missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time in four years last season, O’Regan wanted to make sure JMU ingrained good habits from the beginning.
“We’re setting the tone early,” O’Regan said. “We’ve got to be better in a lot of ways. [Former JMU guard Precious Hall] made up for a lot mistakes and a lot of deficiencies, so we’ve got to get to it right away as far as being sharp offensively and defensively. Yeah, it starts today and I’m going to be aggressive with it.”
Sophomore Kamiah Smalls argued it was probably a necessary step for the Dukes, who return seven of their 10 healthy bodies from last year in addition to Kayla Cooper-Williams, who missed last year with a torn ACL. She said a tougher demeanor from O’Regan — one that was more prevalent toward the middle and end of last season — helped motivate the team to get off to a faster start and make bigger improvements as the year progresses.
“It has to be now for us to get a good jump on the season in order for us to be even better in the midseason,” Smalls said. “Jumping on us right now is what’s going to power us into the first game as opposed to powering us in December when we’ve already played five or eight games.”
One reason O’Regan was harder on his players was the changes to the practice plan that were caused by the Dukes’ health. The coach was doing more hands-on teaching Tuesday to accommodate the three players who were unable to participate in contact drills.
All of JMU’s bumps and bruises are minor, O’Regan said, with most of the limitations being for precautionary reasons.
“We’re banged up, but the good part is they’re small issues right now that are a day-to-day type of level,” O’Regan said. “It’s tough to put a practice plan all the time. I’m almost doing more stuff not live so more people can go into it and it’s a little more teaching than usual. But two weeks will fix all that.”
The slower pace gave O’Regan more time to work extensively with JMU’s two freshmen — Breyenne Bellerand and Tori Harris — during each drill. It also gave more time for JMU’s veterans to help the newcomers when they weren’t on the court during a drill.
Senior Hailee Barron played mentor to Bailey Edwards, who is trying out as a walk-on, for most of the practice, ensuring Edwards was lined up in the correct spots for each drill. Barron is one of several players along with senior Tasia Butler and junior Logan Reynolds that O’Regan is counting on to fill the leadership void Hall left.
“I have a level of confidence in how [Barron will] be able to be a leader for us this year,” O’Regan said. “It’s a good thing for her, and I think she’s fully capable and qualified to go into that role.”
Bellerand made the biggest statement during an otherwise mundane practice.
The freshman from Emerson, N.J. was on cruise control during the three-minute conditioning run at the end of practice. Bellerand lapped every JMU player except Barron and Harris, who were still a court length or so behind her. Barron said the conditioning session was a good example of the hard work the freshmen have put in during the summer, which has left an impression on their new teammates.
“From a freshman, that’s unbelievable, especially at the end of practice first day, your legs are screaming,” Barron said of Bellerand’s effort in the conditioning drill. “They work hard and they’re eager to learn so I see good things for them in the future.”