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James Madison Seniors Discuss Return, Reflect On Canceled Season

(Photo courtesy of JMU Athletics)

The seniors on the James Madison softball team had a lot to think about on the bus ride back to Virginia after they found out about the cancellation of the 2020 season during their ride to the Jacksonville Invitational.

During that trip, they experienced a roller coaster ride of emotions, but they found hope while sitting on that bus.

“(We) seniors that next day, that morning we all went to breakfast. We talked about what we wanted to do, what we hopefully could do,” Madison Naujokas told Softball America during a phone interview. “We talked about our four years here and that we’ve been a big part of each other’s lives. We didn’t want it to end the way that it did.”

The NCAA did fulfill their hopes by granting eligibility relief for spring sport student-athletes. As a result, Naujokas, Kate Gordon and Odicci Alexander have made their plans to return for the Dukes next season.

“Thankfully, we were given this opportunity and hopefully everything will go in our favor next year,” Naujokas continued.

The trio are grateful for the chance to play again, but Alexander has even more reason to enjoy the opportunity. The two-time CAA Player of the Year hadn’t played a game since Feb. 22 due to injury. The extra year allows her to truly enjoy a senior season.

“Getting the opportunity to come back and play for your school is a blessing,” Alexander said over the phone. “Not everyone gets to do that.”

In terms of financial situations, there are a lot of question marks about how non–Power Five schools will go about funding the return of their current senior student-athletes. Wisconsin, a Power Five program, already announced they wouldn’t be allowing spring sport seniors to return. Despite all that, James Madison has backed its seniors through this process.

“Our coaches and all the support staff in the athletic department made it possible for us to come back,” Gordon said over the phone. “They’ve done everything they can to support us financially and prepare us for our fifth years. That has been huge for me because being a smaller school, we weren’t sure what the next steps were. Knowing that James Madison is working hard day in and day out to make sure we can come back for our fifth year is just great.”

Gordon led the nation in batting average in 2020 with a .557 mark before the season concluded, and she has one of the biggest names in college softball for a mid-major player. Thus, she felt she needed to use her voice for other players in her situation. Gordon was one of the handful of student-athletes who took to Twitter as part of the United Student Athletes campaign as a plea to the Division I Council to vote in favor of the student-athletes before its now-approved decision.

“I wanted to do it to be a voice for my team and myself because we could’ve just been done playing if the eligibility bill went a different way,” Gordon said. “I think having social media (and) letting our voices be heard is important because everyone is at home now and looking online. I wanted to participate in that to make sure they know that other schools, mid-majors, want their year back, too.”

All three JMU players have had to adjust their academics as well. Gordon was only taking a few classes this semester and has to graduate this year. Her future plans include taking graduate classes and an undergrad class next year. Alexander and Naujokas pushed back their graduations to 2021.

Since the 2020 season's derailment in March, they’ve all found different ways to keep in shape. Alexander said her team uses an app to stay active and in touch with one another. Gordon and Naujokas have gotten creative with their workouts, which have included their pets. Their dogs have been included on runs and for Gordon’s one-year-old black lab, Luna, she’s become part of Gordon’s squatting sessions.

As most people have, they’ve tried to find the good parts in a time that makes it tough to do so. The situation handed to them has grown their mindset, and when they do return to the field, nothing will be taken for granted. 

“We need to look at it as something positive,” Naujokas said. “(We'll) now take each day and practice as something more because anything can happen at any moment...It’s really an opportunity for all of us seniors to leave on a good note and to be able to play in front of our fans again. Next season is going to be something really important to us.”

odicci alexander photo by jade hewitt.jpg

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