November 10, 2016

Sean O'Regan's dream of running his own women's college basketball program finally tips off when James Madison opens its season against No. 13 Tennessee on Friday night.

After nine years as a Dukes assistant, the game will be his first as their head coach.

''It's a pretty big change for me, moving a chair over,'' O'Regan said of replacing Kenny Brooks, now the head man at Virginia Tech.

The visit from the Lady Vols, the winningest women's team in NCAA history, was O'Regan's idea.

''I didn't feel like wading into the water. I felt like jumping in,'' he said.

O'Regan is one of 56 new head coaches in Division I basketball this year. Other notable changes include Stephanie White taking over at Vanderbilt, Jen Rizzotti at George Washington and Jim Crowley at Providence.

There is an historical component to the game in Harrisonburg, Virginia. While the Lady Vols' 1,299 victories are by far the most among all women's programs, the Dukes are a surprising fourth on the list with 1,045. The matchup is a good way to try to get the season off to a fast start, Lady Vols coach Holly Warlick said.

''I don't care what level it is, JMU's been proven to be a solid team,'' she said. ''They've gone to the tournament. They went to the tournament last year. I continue to say our schedule needs to get us ready for the tournament. I think this does just that. It will be a huge crowd. ... It will be a difficult game.''

O'Regan expects Dukes fans to be out in force to kick off the season.

''There's an exceptional buzz around the game and I think it will be fun for everyone involved,'' he said. ''The community here, they support football and they support men's basketball, but I really believe it's a little bit of a women's basketball school here with the support we get. It helps us in so many ways. It helps us with winning games. It helps us with our players feeling relevant, and I think that's a big thing in women's basketball.''

More than crowd support, O'Regan has returning talent. The Dukes went 27-6 last year, including 17-1 in the mid-major Colonial Athletic Association, and went to their fifth NCAA Tournament in the past nine years. And they did it despite not having redshirt senior Precious Hall all season because of injury.

Hall, a 5-foot-8 guard, averaged 20.8 points as a junior, and is back at full strength, helping to minimize the losses of top scorers Jazmon Gwathmey (20.7 ppg), Ashley Perez (14.4 ppg), and point guard Angela Mickens.

''Year after year with what Kenny did here, it seems like you lose irreplaceable players every year, and you keep finding a way to replace them,'' O'Regan said. ''The Precious piece is huge. ... You don't find players like that very often, and when you do, you rarely walk into a program where they have one there waiting for you.''

The Dukes also have ample size led by 6-2 2016 CAA Rookie of the Year and all-defensive selection Kayla Cooper-Williams (5.8 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 70 blocks) and 6-2 senior forward Da'Lishia Griffin (6.6 ppg, 9.5 rpg).

O'Regan would love a marquee victory to start his head coaching career, and Friday night's matchup with the Lady Vols not only affords the Dukes that opportunity, but a chance to quickly gain some national recognition.

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AP sports writers Doug Feinberg in New York and Steve Megargee in Knoxville, Tennessee contributed.

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