James Madison guts it out against BC, completes dream season with lacrosse title

Chris Bergmann-USA TODAY Sports

James Madison became the first team other than Maryland, Northwestern and North Carolina to win the NCAA women's lacrosse title since 2004.

STONY BROOK, N.Y. -- Back and forth, punch and counterpunch, history was in the making on Sunday at the NCAA women's lacrosse national championship. But who was going to write it?

Give it up for the school named after the fourth president.

James Madison (22-1), which started the season outside of the top 15, led offensively by a recruited walk-on and from the Colonial Athletic Association, is the national champion. In a matchup that featured two programs looking for their first NCAA title, it's the Dukes who came away with the hardware, defeating Boston College 16-15 in a gutty nail-biter.

"This is heaven on earth!" said Dukes senior Haley Warden, soaking in the bedlam that made Kenneth P. LaValle Stadium feel like home (Harrisonburg, Virginia) on a chilly, wet afternoon. Purple streamers blew in the wind. Fans drenched from the pregame downpour chanted, "J-M-U" while purple wigs on grown men gone giddy highlighted a raucous celebration for a team that believed it belonged from day one.

"It's an incredible feeling," said Kristen Gaudian, the once-upon-a-time walk-on now wearing a national championship hat and T-shirt and preparing for the Tewaaraton Awards ceremony next week as one of five finalists.

This is the fifth NCAA title for JMU, but only its second in a women's sport (field hockey, 1994).

Chris Bergmann/USA TODAY Sports

Haley Warden's play on both offense and defense earned the James Madison star the Most Outstanding Player honor.

"People talking about this being a magical year, Cinderella story for us. ... We put in all the hard work," said JMU redshirt freshman goalkeeper Molly Dougherty, credited with seven saves in the title match. "It's top to bottom a whole-team effort. From early-morning runs to staying after practice to take extra shots. That's what got us here, and that's what's going to keep us going."

It was a final-four weekend that saw JMU go 2-0 over the ACC. The Dukes stunned two-time NCAA champion North Carolina 15-12 in Friday's semifinal, and in eliminating BC, they took down a program that swept the ACC regular season and was making its second national championship appearance in as many years.

Frankly, this postseason was just more of the same for JMU, which secured a No. 3 seed, the highest in its history, thanks a 4-0 record over the ACC. That mark is now 6-0 after the tournament with the wins over BC, UNC and Virginia. JMU's lone loss on the season was at Maryland on March 24.

"It's really big for lax in general. The fact that we were ranked 17th in preseason and we just won the national championship is pretty incredible," Gaudian said. "It's great for lacrosse. It proves anyone can beat anyone."

JMU led by four early, but BC (22-2) rallied, just as it had done in besting defending NCAA champion Maryland on Friday. The teams went into halftime tied, and a pair of scores by BC to cap a 5-0 run put the Eagles up 10-8.

But four goals by JMU, the go-ahead one by Elena Romesburg, swung the game back the Dukes' way, a lead they never relinquished despite starting defender Corinne Schmidt being sent to the bench for good after picking up two yellow cards.

"When Corinne fouled out, we knew we had to play for her," said JMU defender Rebecca Tooker. "We really wanted to come together for her."

But the Dukes didn't wilt defensively. They made every BC offensive possession an adventure, keeping in check Sam Apuzzo, whose game winner against Maryland on Friday was No. 2 on the SportsCenter top plays list. The junior, also a Tewaaraton finalist, finished with a hat trick but couldn't find an opening during a 15-minute scoreless drought that cost the Eagles.

"I wish I had prepared them," said BC coach Acacia Walker-Weinstein, her voice breaking down. "I wish I had prepared them better."

When BC clawed back to within one, JMU needed a final draw control to secure the victory. Apuzzo is among the best draw specialists in the nation, and BC held a plus-six advantage on the draw for the day.

"Her wrist strength is unbelievable," Gaudian gushed.

Warden, the defensive player of the year in the CAA, scored five goals Friday and four in the title game, but getting the best of Apuzzo one final time in the circle might be the biggest reason the senior from Glen Mills, Pennsylvania, was named Most Outstanding Player.

More importantly, it was key in earning the Dukes the national championship -- the first team other than Maryland, Northwestern and North Carolina to have that honor since 2004.

The final 22 seconds went by in super-slow motion for Warden, who confesses she breathed a sigh of relief after a scrum of a draw, dishing off to Hanna Haven.

"Just run!" she screamed.

"She had it in her left hand, and the time ran out," Warden said. "It was just an awesome feeling."

Haven couldn't hide an enormous smile, the ball in her stick as she soared down the sideline in front of a JMU bench gone as wild as the folks in the stands roared for the Dukes loud enough for the fans back home in the Shenandoah Valley to hear. "All I knew was I couldn't drop it," Haven said.

"This is the national championship we wanted," Dougherty said. "We wanted it to be close. A dog fight."

Won by the dogs.

Credit JMU coach Shelley Klaes-Bawcombe for instilling the tenacity to make these Dukes believers. She didn't get the job in Harrisonburg the first time she applied, but the JMU alumna wasn't deterred.

"You can either whine about things or you can attack things," said Klaes-Bawcombe, in her 12th season at JMU. "We are JMU. We're not ashamed of that. We're proud of that. James Madison University. JMU nation."

From the night the bracket was unveiled, a non-Power 5 winner seemed possible, but most would have penciled in host school Stony Brook. The Seawolves, behind attacker Kylie Ohlmiller, the rare lacrosse star with her own bobblehead, had this date circled on the calendar for the past four years but were beaten by BC in the quarterfinals.

But JMU?

Since 1990, five teams -- UNC, Maryland, Northwestern, Virginia and Princeton -- had won national championships. JMU had been to just one other final four, in 2000, when the bracket included just 12 teams and a team had to win just one game to advance.

But these Dukes have won more games than any team in school history, their nine seniors the school's winningest class.

Now they own a national championship in the program's 50th season of lacrosse.

"Fifty years strong, we come away with a national championship," Klaes-Bawcombe said.

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