The Washington Post
Unlikely bond boosts JMU’s rapid rise
Northern Virginia natives Gaudian, Kerrigan have Dukes in their first national semifinal since 2000
harrisonburg, va. — The James Madison Dukes are in the Final Four of the NCAA women’s lacrosse tournament for the second time in program history and the first time since 2000. Winning a national title this weekend would mark another national splash for an athletic department that competed at the Division III level until the 1980s.
And in many ways, it was sparked three summers ago by a phone call between two players who appeared to have little in common, other than lacrosse and a childhood spent near each other in the Northern Virginia suburbs.
“We weren’t really friends or anything,” Kristen Gaudian said of reaching out to Katie Kerrigan after their freshman year of college. “We had crossed paths in the summers a little and played against each other in high school, but I didn’t really know her.”
Kerrigan, a two-sport standout known for her fiery competitiveness at Madison High in Fairfax County, less than 10 miles from where Gaudian played at Lake Braddock, put it another way: “She was kind of like the enemy back then.”
They both can laugh at that statement now. Kerrigan and Gaudian, a former walk-on who is one of five finalists for the Tewaaraton Award given to the national player of the year, have developed a bond on and off the field that has made the seniors arguably the best attack duo in the nation.
Gaudian’s 74 goals rank ninth in Division I. Kerrigan’s 53 assists are tied for sixth and lead the Dukes (20-1), seeded third in the NCAA tournament. Their opponent in Friday’s national semifinal will be second-seeded North Carolina (17-3), the perennial power that JMU beat on its home field, 15-14 in double overtime, in the season opener.
The Dukes’ only loss was 15-12 on March 24 at Maryland, the defending national champion and top overall seed, which will play Boston College in Friday’s other semifinal.
The run is the latest achievement on the national stage for the Dukes’ athletics programs. Since the start of the last school year, James Madison reached back-toback Football Championship Subdivision title games, winning one, and was a site for ESPN’s “College GameDay” pregame show. The softball team finished 52-8 and hosted an NCAA regional last year (after hosting a regional and super regional the year before), then followed it this spring by going 43-14 and earning an at-large bid to the tournament.
Three years ago, Gaudian initiated a conversation after she learned Kerrigan was considering transferring after her freshman season at Ohio State. She tracked down Kerrigan’s phone number through mutual acquaintances.
From there, a friendship formed. Kerrigan ended up transferring to JMU for her sophomore year. Now they are roommates, and both are communications studies majors with a focus on public relations. Gaudian and Kerrigan spend all day together at home and practice and through an identical class schedule.
On the field, they almost always know where the other will be, too. A former basketball player, Kerrigan controls the offense, roaming the space behind the cage with remarkable vision. Gaudian likes to work the middle of the offensive zone, and when Kerrigan feeds her the ball there, JMU is nearly unstoppable.
“Katie has the point guard skill set,” Dukes Coach Shelley KlaesBawcombe said. “She sees the field so incredibly well and is a great passer, but I say she has more of a shooting guard’s mentality. There’s nothing passive about her; she will work around the crease and make you commit to her and score on you if you don’t. But when you do, that’s when she finds Kristen or one of the other players cutting right through the middle.”
That Gaudian has become the Dukes’ star — the Colonial Athletic Association player of the year and a first-team all-American — is something of a role reversal. Coming out of high school, Kerrigan was a highly recruited standout and a two-time all-American. Gaudian earned a preferred walkon spot at JMU her first season and was the last player added to the roster.
But they faced a similar challenge adjusting to the college game. Kerrigan scored her only goal at Ohio State in her debut and played in just two more games as a freshman. Gaudian scored twice in 14 games her first season.
From the initial phone call in 2015, it became clear they had more in common than just a childhood in neighboring suburbs. But their differences also help them thrive.
Klaes-Bawcombe said Gaudian is a bit reserved and still not fully aware of her immense talent. Kerrigan’s high school basketball coach, Kirsten Stone, said teammates could be intimidated by the intensity she brought to every practice.
“They always hated when Katie would guard them because they knew it would be a battle,” Stone said.
Gaudian, on the other hand, said she can’t think of anyone she would rather see on the practice field.
“I couldn’t have imagined how much I’d enjoy getting to know her,” Gaudian said. “Katie is such a fun person and brought a lot of energy just as soon as she joined the program. And obviously we are much better with her on the field.”