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Kat Buchanan

Kat Buchanan Spurned the Transfer Portal to Patiently Wait for Shot at JMU

March 9, 2023
Beth Ann Mayer
James Madison Athletics

James Madison’s redshirt senior goalie Kat Buchanan has been a bit late to the party. But when she shows up, she’s the life of it.

Initially a hockey forward, Buchanan started playing lacrosse for her Milton, Mass., rec league in sixth grade when many blue-chip recruits were already traveling to club tournaments. She started for the Milton High School team, where her spirit earned her the Unsung Hero award as a junior.

“I’m an enthusiastic person,” Buchanan said. “When I was starting in high school, I was always full of energy.”

That enthusiasm got her noticed by Shelley Klaes — and only Shelley Klaes. Buchanan’s recruiting process was full of radio silence, first for hockey, then for lacrosse.

“I was looking to play hockey, but I wasn’t getting much response there,” Buchanan said. “I wasn’t really going to settle for not playing a sport. I didn’t have much time. I got a camera from my high school’s audio department and had my mom and dad film every game. I threw together a highlight film and emailed it to the top 25 teams. Only Shelley responded.”

Klaes was in a bind herself. Her future goalie depth chart included Kaitlyn Martindale, Ellie Harmeyer and a young Molly Dougherty, who didn’t start in high school and was coming off hip surgery.

“No goalie was really closing the door on the other, and we were searching,” Klaes said.

Klaes had a camp coming up (and also a beach vacation). She started searching through her inbox, trying to find an athletic goalie. Buchanan’s video popped. Klaes removed her toes from the sand and hid in a garage, trying to track down Buchanan, who was on a mission trip. Klaes reached Buchanan’s father and club coach. Buchanan came to the camp.

“You have this smaller-stature [5-6] athlete, but her personality is larger-than-life,” Klaes said. “She really gelled with us. She was in a difficult situation where she knew we were looking at her and thrived. For me, it’s who do you become under pressure? She was about to flourish in that moment.”

Speaking of flourishing under pressure, Dougherty put together a redshirt freshman season that’s gone down in NCAA lore. Tapped as the starter eight games into the season, Dougherty finished 2018 14-0 and a national champion. Buchanan was at Stony Brook as the Dukes upended North Carolina and Boston College to become the first women’s lacrosse team without a BCS football program to win it all since Princeton in 2003.

“I was blown away,” Buchanan said. “I was shocked. I was like, ‘Whoa, I’m going to be in really good hands for the next four years,’ which turned into five years. Seeing Molly do that was awesome. It might be nice to start your freshman year, but I never went in thinking I was going to take over the team.”

Still, Buchanan is a competitor. And once she got to Harrisonburg and reality set in that she’d likely be riding the bench for three years, she began to harbor some animosity toward Dougherty.

“It’s kind of the position,” Buchanan. “There’s only one of you, and you’ve got to show up every day. It was never anything bad. It was just that classic, ‘Ugh, I want to play.’”

Buchanan ultimately credits Dougherty for showing her how to succeed on a top 10 team. In the meantime, she kept busy by returning to her roots as a hype person.

“Her biggest role was our starting lineup person, [who] is chosen to memorize everyone’s starting lineup handshake,” Klaes said. “She unified our sideline. They started to recognize that they had a role and opportunity to help the team.”

Embracing the role was a no-brainer.

“I had to pick something up if I wanted to enjoy my time,” Buchanan said. “It was a pretty easy decision to go have fun on the sidelines. I think a lot of people miss out on that opportunity.”

An unexpected opportunity presented itself to Buchanan in 2020. When COVID canceled the season, the NCAA granted players an extra year of eligibility. The transfer portal lit up for the next two years, with the rosters of blue bloods reading like the collegiate lacrosse versions of the late-90s Yankees. Buchanan had played in four games in two years. She’d be lying if she said she didn’t consider seeing if she’d have a better shot elsewhere.

“I felt lost,” Buchanan said. “I think everyone in the world felt lost at that point. Everyone felt stagnant, like what can I do to progress something or make change happen? Yeah, I thought about [entering the portal]. I brought it up with Shelley, [but] I think it would be a slap in the face to Shelley.”

The pandemic offered Klaes and Buchanan a chance to discuss the future and their long-term vision, though there were no guarantees. The two engaged in a series of conversations over the next two years.

“She not only wanted to be the one, she wanted to be the one at JMU, and she was willing to do the work to make that happen,” Klaes said. “In today’s age, the courage to do that, the patience to do that, the work ethic to do that, it shows her perseverance and character as an individual. She took the risk to stay with me not guaranteeing it would be her. She had to work for it.”

With Dougherty hanging up her jersey last May after six years at JMU, Buchanan finally saw an opening to start. It wasn’t without competition. Sophomore Adayna Moyer, who produced three-straight seasons with a save percentage above 55 at Our Lady of Good Counsel (Md.), was back. And USA Lacrosse and Under Armour All-American Caitlin Boden arrived on campus as a touted freshman.

But Buchanan still isn’t one to settle. She took shots in the summer and got runs in, even while working long hours as an intern for Mass Golf. In the fall and preseason, Buchanan thrived under pressure — just like she did all those years ago at a camp she attended with about one week’s notice.

“She came in confident,” Klaes said. “She came in ready. She was not willing to let anyone stand in her way.”

Buchanan may have been confident, but she was humble enough not to take anything for granted. She didn’t believe she was the starter until she heard it straight from Klaes’ mouth a couple of weeks before opening day against defending national champion UNC.

“Shelley told me, ‘You’re my goalie. I want you to be my goalie. If there was a game tomorrow, I’d pick you,’” Buchanan said. “There was no looking back.”

Buchanan is reflective about her first start of the season, a 12-5 loss that saw her make five saves.

“Looking back, there’s a couple of more I could have had,” Buchanan said before quickly adding, “We’re over it, but it was a good test.”

Maryland presented another gauge. The Terps, a Final Four team in 2022, were coming off a one-goal win over Florida. But Buchanan pieced together the game of her career, making 10 saves, including stuffing Hannah Leubecker with 1:27 left to preserve the 8-7 win.

“It was one of those games where you kind of just feel the flow and don’t lose focus,” Buchanan says. “You can’t lose focus. When you’re seeing it and enjoying it at the same time, it can’t go another way.”

And Klaes never questioned if Buchanan had it in her.

“That’s the vision,” Klaes said. “That is what you see as a coach can happen, but they have to be able to settle in the moment. She is focused on the right things, and to see her come up with that end-of-game save, a small body taking up so much space in cage, it was incredible.”

Buchanan made six stops against Ohio State last weekend and six on Wednesday against Liberty. The 6-1 Dukes are eighth in the Nike/USA Lacrosse Division I Women’s Top 20 heading into a matchup with Johns Hopkins on Saturday. Then, a date with new American Athletic Conference rival Florida awaits on March 18.

Klaes doesn’t want her goalie to peak in March. To be fair, who would? She thinks if Buchanan stays true to her roots, her final season has room for plenty of more chapters. This time, with the sidelines cheering for her.

“It’s important for Kat to stay grounded and take it one game at a time,” Klaes said. “That’s how she’s gotten to this place. It’s never been about her. As people learn her story, she recognizes that it’s been in the work and putting the team before self that has gotten to this place.”