Jacksonville's Growth a Testament to Upperclass Leaders


Poised on the free position line against Liberty, Jacksonville graduate attacker Sarah Elms stared down at the cage.

The Dolphins were at a crossroads. Jacksonville started off uncharacteristically slow, facing a 5-2 deficit at the end of the first quarter. With the ASUN regular season title and a perfect conference record on the line, the Dolphins needed a spark.

When Elms burst off the line to score, she finished — just like everyone around the Jacksonville program has come to expect from their star. Her score kicked off a 10-goal scoring streak spanning parts of the second and third quarters, firmly shutting the door on the Flames’ hopes of an upset. By the end of the game, she had chipped in five goals and three assists and powered Jacksonville to a 20-7 victory.

For coach Mindy McCord, the win signaled that the Dolphins’ hard work was paying off.

“Being able to see our team be poised, even in that first quarter where we were struggling a bit, but keep working through things and keep true to our identity … was really a highlight of the year,” McCord said.

The victory was also a testament to Elms’ role as a kickstarter on attack this season. She set the Dolphins’ single-game goals record with nine against Harvard in March and surpassed the career goals record against Delaware State in April. She ranks 11th in goals per game nationally and 12th in points per game.

But just three years ago, Elms sat out her sophomore season with an ACL injury. Her junior season, the pandemic struck.

It took until her senior year for Elms and the Dolphins to deliver a breakout campaign. Jacksonville excelled in 2021, defeating two ranked opponents — Florida and Virginia Tech — for the first time in program history. The Dolphins made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament. Elms was central to this run, scoring 60 goals with 12 assists.

After her ACL injury, Elms said she knew she wanted to take a fifth year at Jacksonville. The Dolphins’ success in 2021 affirmed that decision, pushing her to return.

“After our big season last year, it was important for me to return and play with my teammates again,” Elms said. “[The] majority of seniors last year stayed for their fifth year, so we have the same team, same girls, just got better with freshmen and transfers. It’s been awesome.”

McCord has seen both Elms’ attacking and leadership skills transform this season. As a veteran attacker, McCord said Elms has worked to instill confidence in her younger teammates. In the fall, McCord said she would often see Elms in one-on-one conversations with younger players, helping them understand schemes and acclimate to college play.

Halfway through March, Jacksonville was 3-3 on the season. Now, the Dolphins are 11-4 after an eight-game winning streak was halted Wednesday night in a 12-6 loss to Florida. The program currently boasts the country’s top scoring offense and is second in scoring defense.

Building a tough non-conference schedule readied Jacksonville for success over the past month, McCord said. The program’s four losses have come against Notre Dame, North Carolina, USC and Florida — all teams that have been ranked at some point this year. McCord said playing tough difficult opponents gave Jacksonville an idea of where it should improve ahead of conference play.

Another key to success has been strong bonds between the program’s upperclassmen. The Dolphins have seven graduate students on the roster and 10 seniors — many of whom have stepped up this season. Among the standouts include graduate attacker Jenny Kinsey, who ranks second in goals behind Elms, and graduate defender Casey Sullivan, who has 17 caused turnovers.

Elms said the friendships and chemistry she and her teammates have built off the field have translated well on the field. After years of playing together, Elms said they can anticipate each other’s actions in games.

McCord said she wants to pinch herself when thinking about the program’s talented, upperclassmen leaders. Just a few seasons ago, she said the program would start seven freshmen. Now, their starting lineup is filled with a crop of experienced veterans who have been at Jacksonville for years.

“[The upperclassmen] really took [advantage of] the opportunities they were given their freshmen and sophomore years to grow and develop as a player,” McCord said. “Now … you see their leadership evolve and they’re humble, but they’re hungry, and they want to leave the program better than they found it.”

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