The James Madison volleyball team?
“They’re a great group of girls and super resilient and tough,” JMU coach Lauren Steinbrecher said.
Good thing, too, because those kids have been through a lot.
Yes, every NCAA volleyball team dealt with COVID and all that it entailed the past couple of years. But JMU was dealt another sucker punch.
By its own conference, of all things.
JMU was a longtime member of the Colonial Athletic Association. But the first week of November it became apparent that JMU was making the move to the Sun Belt Conference.
And the CAA wasn’t happy.
CAA commissioner Joe D’Antonio told USA Today’s Dan Wolken that JMU would be ineligible for conference team championships while it remained in the league.
“It’s a policy that we have as a conference, and it was a decision made by the board of directors to adhere to the policy and the bylaws of the conference and enforce those going forward,” D’Antonio told Wolken. “There’s precedent for it. This happened when other schools have left, and all our institutions are aware that this is a bylaw that exists.”
On November 6, 2021, with less than two weeks left to the CAA volleyball season, JMU announced that it was Sun Belt-bound no later than July 1, 2023.
That same morning, JMU swept Towson to improve to 16-5 overall, and, at 10-3 overtook Towson in the league standings.
But with no conference title to chase — and an NCAA RPI in the 50s — JMU’s season would end no matter how the CAA-leading Dukes finished.
The next day, they lost at home to Towson. On November 13, they swept at Hofstra and then got swept by Hofstra.
That was it.
JMU, 17-7 overall, 11-5 in the CAA, was going home for the offseason.
“I mean, it was awful,” Steinbrecher said. “I know a lot of universities are going through it, but the way the conference handled it with a completely outdated by-law harms the student-athletes. It was a heart-breaking experience.
“We were tied for first when they made the announcement and to not give those girls a chance to compete for a championship,” she said, shaking her head, “which at our level is everything.
“It was horrible, especially after COVID.”
In 2019, JMU finished 20-8, 13-3 in the CAA, but lost to Towson in the conference tournament championship match. In the shortened 2020 season, the Dukes went 7-3, 6-1 in the CAA, and lost in the conference tourney semifinals.
Last fall, after JMU was told to stay home, Towson won the CAA tournament, pulling off a five-set reverse sweep of Elon, and the automatic bid that came with it. The Tigers lost to Penn State in four in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
I would have done anything for the girls. At one point we bought them gear, ‘Here’s new shoes.’ It was just so heartbreaking. And I’ll tell you, it’s almost hard to remember normal. I don’t think I’ll ever take anything for granted ever again. You get to go to a conference tournament and compete. You never think those things will be taken away from you.”
There’s no chance the CAA will wreak its vengance on JMU again, because in February the move to the Sun Belt was announced it would be effective this past July 1.
Three other schools also joined the now 16-team SBC, Southern Miss, Old Dominion and Marshall.
All of which gives Steinbrecher a renewed sense of optimism. And why not? She has almost her entire team returning.
It starts with 5-foot-10 junior Miëtte Veldman, an outside hitter from Daleville, Virginia, who was the CAA player of the year. She led the Dukes with 303 kills (4.09/set), had 14 aces, 32 blocks — nine solo — and averaged 2.3 digs/set.
Sophia Davis was also an all-CAA honoree. The 6-1 senior middle from Fort Lauderdale was second in kills (253), hit .370, had 13 aces, and led with 107 blocks, 25 solo.
Also back is setter Caroline Dozier, a 6-foot senior from Raleigh, North Carolina, who averaged 9.7 assists per set, had 13 aces, 54 blocks and averaged 2.1 digs/set.
JMU lost just two players, libero Savannah Marshall and reserve setter Rebecca Frye.
The team picked up a transfer in middle Alex Kwasnick, a 6-3 junior from New Jersey who played sparingly last season for Cincinnati.
And there are three freshmen whom Steinbrecher said could make an impact. Bre Reid is an outside from Georgetown, Delaware; Grace Wenrich is a setter from Watkinsville, Georgia; and Juiia McNeley is a libero from Louisville.
Steinbrecher starts her 13th season in Harrisonburg, Virginia, next month. The former Lauren Sauer, who is from Huntsville, Alabama, was a star player at Georgia Tech, first for Shelton Collier and then Bond Shymansky. After briefly playing pro in Spain, she got into coaching, serving as an assistant coach to Craig Skinner at Kentucky for three years before getting the JMU job.
Interestingly, she had many Georgia Tech teammates who also coached, including Bird Kuhn, the head coach at Texas A&M, and Lindsey Gray-Walton, the head coach at Oklahoma who was also a Kentucky assistant.
“At one point there were like nine of us from that team who were coaching in Division I,” Steinbrecher said.
The Steinbrechers are pretty entrenched in Harrisonburg.
“It’s a great institution, so it’s happier than happy,” Steinbrecher said of JMU. “It’s great for our family, too.”
Indeed, because her husband, Casey, who served as her assistant the past decade, is now the head coach at Division III Eastern Mennonite University.
“It’s perfect, because it’s closer to our house than JMU,” she said. “It’s a good fit.”
So, she hopes, is JMU in the Sun Belt. It’s a tough league, from perennial favorite Texas State to Coastal Carolina to last year’s winner, South Alabama. JMU has been to the NCAA Tournament twice, in 2016 and 2017, and finished first or second in the CAA six of the past seven seasons.
“I’m really excited. I’ve been the coach at JMU for 12 years and have had the same conference and same everything, so to get new schools and new everything will be fun,” Steinbrecher said. “The head coaches are awesome and they’ve been great so far. It will be fun to play new programs.”