The tears started when pitcher Odicci Alexander realized she had nothing more to give to James Madison, and it was in that moment that a small part of the college softball world was also heartbroken.
For five glorious days, Alexander became the story of the Women’s College World Series, the ultimate underdog player who brought the ultimate underdog team to the brink of a national championship.
She did it with determination, swag, and a repertoire of pitches that puzzled the nation’s No. 1 team, Oklahoma, on an opening day last week; and she did it with resilience and intensity and a smile that told anyone she was part of Oklahoma City despite only being recruited by a Division I coach.
Alexander started all four games James Madison played in the WCWS, and the workload began to take its toll in a playoff game against Oklahoma on Monday. The day before, she took a ball off her foot in the fourth inning but stayed in the game and ended it. She was back to start Monday and winced in pain because there was no way she was going to be sidelined. So she pushed forward and threw three scoreless innings as James Madison led 1-0 early.
Oklahoma took the lead in the bottom of the fourth inning, but when the Sooners scored four more goals in the bottom of the fifth inning, coach Loren LaPorte went to the circle to tell Alexander it was time. Not only was the James Madison season a few outs away, but it was the last time Alexander would put on her Dukes uniform.
James Madison’s Odicci Alexander dives and marks the runner on home plate after the state of Oklahoma tries to squeeze the potential game run.
As she approached the dugout and wiped away her tears, the entire crowd – mostly Oklahoma fans – gave her a standing ovation. You see, Alexander fired the imagination and earned the respect of her opponents with her unwillingness to ever give up.
“The game recognizes the game, and she’s a ball player,” said Oklahoma pitcher G Juarez of Alexander, who struck 66 batters to 1,057 pitches in 64 2/3 innings in the NCAA tournament. “I have tremendous respect for her. She gave everything she had and I think it’s really great that she gave her this standing ovation. She deserved it. She deserved it.”
What Alexander made easy is the way she plays the game: a do-what-ever-it-takes mentality that stems from her upbringing when her grandparents raised her in a small town in Virginia. Her grandfather WD Alexander, whom she affectionately calls “Pops”, fought with the army in the Vietnam War and survived a gunshot wound in the arm to return home. He gave everything he had to make Odicci the best pitcher she could be – and they both understood that she would stand out for more than her pitching. It is rare to find black softball throwers, much less elite black throwers.
She honed her skills by throwing at concrete blocks her grandfather had set up in the back yard and drawing a circle around the center as a target.
“She always had a glove and a ball with her and wanted to play catch all the time,” her great-uncle Robert Alexander told ESPN last week. “So I knew she was going to do something in this game. I went through her house once and she is about 9 years old. And I always challenged them. And she deleted me. I couldn’t believe it was embarrassing. I went back the next day, she did it again. She said don’t try me anymore I said, ‘I won’t.’ “
Even so, no recruiters came to watch her play. Only then – James Madison coach Mickey Dean saw her in a game where he was looking for someone else, did she finally attract the interest she had been looking for for so long. James Madison was the perfect opportunity to stay close to her home and show all of those who have died how sorry they would one day not give her a chance.
But it wasn’t until the Super Regionals that the nation began to see their talent after James Madison pissed Missouri to secure his spot in Oklahoma City. WD Alexander was eager to attend, but the doctors didn’t allow him to travel from Virginia to Oklahoma to see in person. So he sent his two brothers in his place, along with an aunt and cousins, to form a contingent of the Alexander family – complete with a large cardboard cutout of their head to keep them off the stands.
After Alexander opened WCWS by keeping Oklahoma, the nation’s best offensive team, at three season lows, it became easy to refer to the Dukes as the “Cinderella” team, even though the James Madison program has built steadily over the years. Sporting director Jeff Bourne said he was okay with the label.
“It’s a chance for the school to face our future, but doing so on a national level with 300 teams just speaks for something incredibly special,” he said.
After that win, Alexander and James Madison became a social media sensation as coaches, teams, and players from all sports tweeted and other social media posts, including one from UMBC, the # 1 Virginia at NCAA Men’s 2018 basketball tournament angry as No. 16 seed.
see you @JMUSoftball
– UMBC Athletics (@UMBCAthletics) June 3, 2021
“I think James Madison single-handedly made our sport better because they brought a lot of people to see them,” said Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso. “I think that’s the ultimate compliment I can give a coach and a program.”
The following day, Alexander made the game of the tournament with a 2-1 win over the state of Oklahoma. When she put a ball straight to her, Alexander did a jump game on the plate to mark Scotland David, which enabled James Madison to become the first unset team to reach the national semifinals.
As nine family members watched from the stands, her cousin Brad Holmes said, “She looked like superwoman out there!”
“This is a game every pitcher dreams of,” said Courtney Blades-Rogers, an All-American pitcher for Southern Miss and a perfect match at WCWS in 2000.
The Seattle Mariners had their own game and called it an Alexander “Appreciation Game”.
This was a @ 2seas__ appreciation game.
(via @JMUSoftball) pic.twitter.com/UkZBsn9vEo
– Seattle Mariners (@Mariners) June 5, 2021
After the game in Oklahoma State, LaPorte said her team really started to believe, “Why not us?”
The dukes held on to this belief until the very end, with Alexander leading the attack. The fact that James Madison didn’t make it into the championship series shouldn’t detract from what that team – and Alexander – achieved. Think of little girls who look like Alexander who watches them in awe, inspires one day to become a WCWS pitcher, too.
“Honestly, my 9-year-old me never thought I was here because at that age I was sitting on my couch and looking at it,” she said. “I’m just here, I honestly have no words, but for the people watching, I hope I’ve inspired you to be yourself and be the best version of yourself.”
The shame of it all is that this is the last time we will see Alexander on a national stage. As her cousin Holmes said, “I just wonder if it’s too late to get her on the Olympic team. Somebody’s calling the coach!”