The East Coast’s dynasty has high aspirations for 2015, the last year for many of their star players
James Madison University Club Dodgeball was founded in the fall of 2010 by Computer Science and Sports Management student, Christopher Hess. Since their first tournament ever, JMU has stormed their way to an above 75% winning percentage over the course of four seasons, with victories over all of the top teams in college dodgeball including Grand Valley State, Saginaw Valley State, Central Michigan, Michigan State, Kentucky, and Kent State.
The Dukes have long been considered the cream of the crop in the East Coast region since they generally dominate their competition in the east. They hold a 27-1 overall record against those teams, including an impressive 20-1 mark against teams from the state of Maryland. This group may be relatively new to the National Collegiate Dodgeball Association (NCDA), but JMU has garnered some pretty high praise from opponents in the past. Compliments like: “They are the most athletic team in the NCDA” or “the hardest throwing team in the league” have constantly been directed toward this team, and rightfully so.
While the Dukes are only in their fourth year as a member team of the National Collegiate Dodgeball Association, they still have compiled quite a few accolades thus far in the team’s brief existence, including two appearances in the quarterfinals, and one Final Four at the annual “NCDA Nationals” tournament.
All of this is old news to anyone who follows the NCDA, and it’s not the reason for me writing this feature story in the first place. Would it surprise you if I said that this year is, in a way, a make-or-break season for JMU? Would you believe me if I told you that everything that the Dukes have accomplished in seasons past was just a prelude to what they may have in store for this spring? Well, now that I’ve grabbed your attention…
Assembling a Team
When most people think of the James Madison dodgeball team, the first thing that comes to mind might be “athleticism”, “dominance”, maybe even “cockiness”, but what many people forget is the fact that this team started up from nothing just like any other new NCDA team. While James Madison Club Dodgeball may have the reputation of being one of the NCDA’s elite, this was not always the case. The team’s transformation from a new, inexperienced group, to a top tier program did not happen overnight.
After a long process of paper work and organization through the university, the dodgeball club was officially formed on November 1st, 2010, by Chris Hess. The following August, the first group of players were brought into the club.
Starting a club sports team is no simple task, and Hess knew that he needed to use a non-tryout format when first forming the team in order to populate the roster with enough players (tryouts would begin for the club the following spring). While Hess didn’t know how his team would compete just yet, he had a clear vision when creating this club.
“My expectation was initially to create a club that had the experiences that you would find through a sport club, but have the bond of a fraternity,” Hess said. “Being a young club, we did a lot of things off the court that brought us together quickly, which helped our team cohesion.”
Team chemistry was only one piece of the puzzle though. Having knowledge and experience playing the sport was as well. Unfortunately for Hess’s squad, they didn’t have much of that yet. Ask any of the players that were on that original team and they would likely tell you that they weren’t exactly sure what to expect from this thing called competitive collegiate dodgeball.
“I was not sure what to expect when I actually joined the team,” said Ben Sizemore, the current captain and president for JMU Dodgeball. “Chris, the president at the time, seemed like a cool guy and I loved playing dodgeball during grade school, so I figured I would end up enjoying it.”
Connor Ford, who is now a senior member of the JMU team, wasn’t so sure what the NCDA was about when he first joined the team that fall. “When I first joined the club four years ago in JMU’s inaugural season, I had absolutely no idea what to expect,” Ford explained. “I had no idea how good we were or how good teams were across the league until our first ever match against Kent State at the UMD Invite.”
To use a popular metaphor to describe where this team was at, if the journey to becoming the best team in college dodgeball was like climbing a mountain, they were still standing at the base. This team didn’t know how high this “mountain” was, and they surely couldn’t see the top yet.
It was the fall of 2011, and James Madison University had a dodgeball team. This team had no experience playing NCDA style dodgeball, or even an idea of how they would stack up against other collegiate teams in competition, but they had a tight knit group of athletes that were ready to make the climb.
Building their Dynasty
On November 12, 2011 the University of Maryland played host to James Madison, Towson, and the #1 team in the nation: Kent State. This dodgeball tournament would be the first for all three of the East Coast squads.
The first match for the Dukes came against Kent, and ended in a 4-2 loss. James Madison showed their inexperience in that game, but also their passion and competitiveness according to Kent State’s captain Kyle FitzPatrick who wrote a post-tournament article recapping the performances of all the East Coast squads. The loss to Kent was the first of three that year for James Madison. It was a matchup that would soon develop into one of the best rivalries in the NCDA.
James Madison did go on to win their final two matches of the tournament against UMD and TU. Hess recalled the win against UMD, a dramatic victory, as an important achievement for the Dukes. “Our first tournament at UMD, we played the hosting Terps, and after being down by three at halftime, we came back and won the game with five seconds to spare,” Hess said.
Ben Sizemore echoed the comments of Hess. “I think the game that really set the tone for JMU Dodgeball was against Maryland at the UMD Invite in 2011, the first tournament we as a team ever attended,” Sizemore explained. “It ended up being tied 3-3 with 2 minutes or so left in the game. There was talk of running the clock out and going in to overtime, but we ended up scoring the point with seconds remaining on the clock. From then on, we became a fast-paced, aggressive offensive team.” The Dukes were 2-1 after their first weekend of dodgeball, showing a lot of promise.
JMU continued their inaugural season with a tournament at the University of Kentucky, before hosting their own tournament, the Big East-Appalachian Super Tournament, more widely known as “BEAST”. JMU played well on their home court going 3-1 with Kent State being their only loss.
After the BEAST, the Dukes were off to their first ever NCDA Nationals, which in 2012 was held at Saginaw Valley State University, in Michigan. James Madison certainly held their own at Nationals, with arguably the biggest upset of the tournament being their victory over Michigan State. According to many JMU players, this was a defining moment for them. It was a huge step forward for their young team.
“Day 1 of Nationals 2012, we defeated Michigan State, which truly defined the start of our rise as a top-ranked team,” said Hess. Senior Brent Gromer, who was a freshman at the time, said much of the same. “I’d say the biggest game that I am thankful to have been a part of is our victory over Michigan State during our first Nationals,” Gromer said.
“In terms of turning points or games that really put us on the map, our first ever Nationals, our win against the veteran Michigan State team really shocked some people,” said Ford. It was obvious to the entire team that they had made a statement with that win.
JMU wound up losing to eventual national runner-up Kentucky in bracket play, but they sent a message to the rest of the league that weekend. They weren’t there yet, but James Madison proved to everyone that they had the potential to be great.
Fast forward several months and James Madison began their second season as a member team of the NCDA. This time around they had a better idea of what to expect. The season started out well for the Dukes, with only one loss the entire first half of the season. Of course, that loss came at the hands of their nemesis: Kent State.
During that fall semester, JMU showed they were a vastly improved team by going 6-1 overall. This stretch included a huge victory over Kentucky, which happened to be the only regular season loss for the Wildcats that year. At the halfway point in the 2012-13 season, JMU was mentioned as a sleeper team with a lot of promise by the NCDA’s Average Joe’s Podcast hosts, Sam Hiller and Mike Van Ermen.
Another game that pushed the JMU team forward was at the Chicago Dodgeball Open (CDO) in January 2013. “We started to surprise ourselves game after game, and when we played Grand Valley for the first time in Chicago, and lost in a very close game,” Gromer said. “That was beyond impressive to us because we went into that game with no expectations really.”
At CDO, JMU was also able to beat MSU again. This time it didn’t seem to be much of a shock. It was clear that this team was starting to gain some serious confidence, despite only having one season of experience under their belt.
JMU was not there quite yet as it turned out. At BEAST II, JMU lost a heartbreaker to Saginaw Valley State (2-1 in OT), and fell short once again to Kent State (1-0). They had not yet earned the distinction of being an NCDA “elite”, but they would have one last opportunity to prove themselves capable in 2012-13: Nationals held at the University of Kentucky.
The Dukes came to Kentucky considered by most people in the league as a second tier team, behind the likes of UK, GVSU, SVSU, MSU, and Kent.
JMU took care of business in pool play, with wins over Northwestern State and Miami, before their rematch against the Grand Valley State Lakers. The Dukes played a fantastic game against GV, using a slow-paced, organized offensive attack to pick apart the heavily favored squad from the state of Michigan. JMU showed off their strong arms in this game and looked nearly unstoppable at times. When the final buzzer sounded, James Madison was victorious, 2-1.
The significance of this victory is hard to explain. It was the first loss to a non-Michigan school for mighty Grand Valley since April 2006! There was no doubt that this game had solidified the Dukes as one of the best teams in college dodgeball.
This wasn’t such a shock to JMU. They were more than capable of beating top level competition, and this win simply proved this point to the rest of the league. “That victory proved our success during the team’s first season was not a fluke, and that we could hang with the big dogs of the league,” said Sizemore, who played a vital role in the win.
Connor Ford knew that game in a sense represented JMU turning the corner as a team. “Maybe our best win ever was our second year Nationals victory over Grand Valley in the group stages. I saw us turn into a real powerhouse from then on,” Ford said.
The journey from being a new NCDA school to becoming one of the elite teams in college dodgeball remarkably only took the Dukes two seasons!
Obviously the story does not end here. The final day of Nationals was right around the corner…
Chasing a Championship
The NCDA’s Alumni Podcast the night before the final day of Nationals involved many people predicting JMU to beat GVSU again, positioning them to win their first national title. After a first round win against an overmatched DePaul team, the Dukes were set to play GVSU once again. The winner of this game would move on to the Final Four to face top-ranked Kentucky, while the loser would have to pack their bags and go home.
Grand Valley was ready for JMU this time around, and went on to win the game 4-1. JMU’s season ended only a few wins short of a national title.
While GVSU had to go through UK in the semifinals and MSU in the finals in order to win it all, many people left Lexington, Kentucky that weekend believing that James Madison was one of the best teams in the league.
James Madison had finished their first two seasons with identical quarterfinals finishes at Nationals. Heading into the 2013-14 season, this talented group was poised to take the next step.
The fall of 2013 started out well for the Dukes, as they headed into the RedHawk Invite in November with an undefeated record. This tournament, held at Miami (Oh) University would include many of the best teams nationally. GVSU would be in attendance, as would SVSU, Kent, and an improved Ohio State team. This would be the first big test of the season for JMU.
James Madison started the day with a rematch against GV. Both squads entered the game undefeated, and the winner would likely be considered the top team in the nation. The first half couldn’t have gone better for JMU, as they took a 2-0 lead against a Grand Valley team that had only given up one point all season before that match. The second half was a different story, as GVSU adjusted their strategy to claim a narrow 3-2 victory.
While that might have been a discouraging loss, JMU was able to bounce back to beat Saginaw Valley, as well as their first ever win against their heated rival Kent State by a convincing 5-point margin. Hess, the founder of the club, was playing in his last semester as a member of the team, so getting that win against Kent was important to him. “The only time we eventually beat Kent was the last time I got to play them, so it was great to get a sense of closure when we finally topped the Flashes,” Hess said.
“A game I personally think was great for our team was when we beat Kent State at the Redhawk Invite in the fall of 2013,” said Sizemore. “I have always viewed Kent State as a rival because all Kent State vs. JMU games have been competitive, close, and heated. That victory was our first win over Kent State and it felt awesome to finally beat them after two years of one point or overtime losses.”
After the RedHawk Invite, JMU had a few more mid-season losses. One to Maryland at the UMD Invite thanks in large part to JMU bringing a depleted roster, and then another loss to Grand Valley in Chicago.
Entering the third annual BEAST tournament, JMU was regarded as a top 3 team in the league. Unfortunately for the Dukes, they underperformed at their own tournament, losing an overtime thriller to Kent State before getting beat again by GVSU.
Nationals 2013 was once again an opportunity for this team to prove their worth. The expectations were much higher as they headed to Ohio State University for the NCDA’s season ending tournament.
During pool-play of Nationals, JMU once again took care of business. They won all of their matches, including a big win against Central Michigan. Once again, JMU headed into the final day of Nationals with a good chance at winning it all.
JMU made quick work of their opponents in the first two rounds of the tournament, before matching up with GVSU in a Final Four showdown.
James Madison couldn’t keep pace with the Lakers, and ended up losing by a large margin, finishing their season so close to winning a championship. In the end it was two Michigan teams battling it out in the championship game, rather than the Dukes.
As a whole, 2013-14 was a season of missed opportunities. It was easy to see that the Dukes were on the cusp of greatness, but they had not yet produced the desired results.
A Season Four Years in the Making
James Madison Club Dodgeball’s website lists 15 seniors on this year’s roster! Most of them were part of the original squad that Chris Hess had formed during the 2011-12 season.
Add on to that the fact that Nationals this season will be held at Western Kentucky University. That’s in the same state where JMU upset Kentucky in the fall of 2012, handing the Wildcats their only regular season loss that year. It’s also the same state where the Dukes shocked the college dodgeball world by beating Grand Valley State in convincing fashion during “Nationals 2013”.
The Dukes finished as quarterfinalists that year, taking a step further with a Final Four appearance the following season. Basically, the stage has been set for a grand finale this spring for all of the departing seniors who have done so much for their team over the past four years.
“This year’s roster includes familiar faces that you’ll remember from that 2011-2012 team, including Ben Sizemore, Connor Ford, Joey Cardella, Taylor Wilhelm, Jeremy Butcher, Chuck Humphries, Robert Spinosa, Justin Conner, Jennifer Pierz, Julie McNally, Brent Gromer (Spring 2012), and Lee Lucas (Spring 2012),” Hess, the founder of the club said. “These guys were the foundation to our team, and are all leaders that act as a great voice for our team. I can’t thank them enough for how well they have kept up with the club since I departed.”
That group comprised largely of freshmen that traveled to Saginaw Valley State University in the spring of 2012 to compete at their first ever NCDA Nationals? Yeah, they’re seniors now. Seasoned veterans, ready to take that final step as an elite college dodgeball team. The amount of experience on this year’s roster is absolutely staggering. JMU is the most experienced squad in the nation, which was never the case in the past.
2014-15 has gone very well for JMU thus far. The Dukes stand at 8-0 at the halfway point in the NCDA’s regular season. An unblemished record heading into the second half of the season is something that JMU had never accomplished in the past.
It is difficult to accurately gauge where JMU stands nationally because to this point in the season, the Dukes have not had the chance to compete against a team outside of the East Coast region. They will have ample opportunity to do so during the second half of the season, with events like the CMU Showdown, BEAST IV, and Nationals 2015.
The second half of the season will be the final chapter in the careers of many of JMU’s best players. It will all come to an end for them on April 12th, in Bowling Green, Kentucky at Nationals. This team has what it takes to be the best; they just have yet to finish their climb to the top of the league.
“I may be a little biased here since I’m a senior and want to win a national championship just as much as the rest of our seniors, but I honestly expect it all from our team this year,” Gromer said. “We have continually climbed the ladder year after year and now it’s time for our team to put all of the learning experience out there, drop our arrogance, and stop listening to the predictions and just make it happen.”
After years of coming up just short of the ultimate accomplishment, the Dukes seem poised to finally take that last step. “I think that we have gotten better every year and I expect this team to compete for a national championship,” Ford said.
With so many senior leaders on this year’s squad, no time is better than now for JMU to finally earn a championship. “I truly believe that if JMU is going to win the title, this year will be our year to do it,” Sizemore said. “It would be wonderful to give the graduating seniors who have been there from the start a national title as a parting gift.”
When Chris Hess first founded the James Madison Club Dodgeball team back in 2010, I doubt he could have foreseen his club having this much success. While Hess no longer patrols the court for the East Coast region’s top squad, he did construct the foundation for the team that is now possibly on the verge of their first ever national title.
This spring will be the last opportunity for so many JMU players to win a national championship, and finally reach the summit of college dodgeball. It would be a remarkable accomplishment for a team that was new to the National Collegiate Dodgeball Association only a few years ago. The Dukes have not finished their climb up the NCDA’s figurative mountain quite yet, but the top is certainly in sight.
Thank you to Chris Hess, Ben Sizemore, Brent Gromer, and Connor Ford for all of the valuable insight as i prepared this story.