What JMU's Example Means For The Future Of College Softball
With millions of viewers tuning in to the 2021 Women’s College World Series, JMU was at the center of attention in the softball world last month.
The fight and determination presented by the Dukes captured the hearts and minds of softball fans across the country. Their run reminded us all, whether you are a player or a fan, that great softball happens on every stage in the game. JMU, as an unranked, mid-major program performing on the biggest stage in college softball, served as that reminder.
“I think it shows that the grass grows where you water it,” Howard University head coach Tori Tyson told Softball America. “For the young athletes, they now know you can make the World Series, you can receive national recognition, you can do all the things with the right people.”
Historically, Power Five schools have dominated the sport. Still, the attention JMU got on its run gives hope for other mid-majors and begins to change the national media's mindset. This season could open the door for more than one mid-major playing in Oklahoma City in the years to come.
“In the last couple of years, there's been just such a divide between Power Five and the mid-major levels as far as the publicity and the social media,” JMU head coach Loren LaPorte said. “Just like with the NCAA Basketball Tournament, every kid that's even playing at a different level (Division III, Division II, JUCO), it shows that it can be done. It's a mentality thing, and I feel like we gave a lot of people hope that if you work hard and stay unified and really love one another, anything is possible.”
University of Maryland pitching coach Chelsea Butler agrees. Butler said: “The JMU softball team has shown the next group of young softball players to go where they are celebrated. Regardless of the conference they play in, they can end up on the biggest stage.”
JMU’s unprecedented run at the 2021 WCWS, as the first unranked team to win its first two games in Oklahoma City, elicited strong responses from the softball community.
“It was absolutely incredible being able to watch JMU do what they did and on the biggest stage, no less,” Butler added. “JMU proved that they belonged and that they were one of the top eight teams in the country, even though they were unranked and unseeded.”
JMU's Odicci Alexander showed prowess on both sides of the ball, finishing her season in the circle with a 1.71 ERA and a .317 batting average. Alexander also signed a deal post-WCWS with the USSSA Pride to extend her career as a professional softball player.
”Odicci stole everybody's hearts,” LaPorte added. ”I think that's the biggest thing—it was more than just her play. She was playing for a lot of different things. She was playing for her teammates, playing for her grandparents.”
Tyson expressed the importance of representation and role models, like Alexander, for future college softball players to follow.
”Her story also shows that until we in the softball community find a fix for the equity gap, these young Black pitchers can now kick-start their career with the Odicci starter pack,” Tyson stated. ”A ball, a glove and a well or a wall. In her story, we can truly instruct our young minority athletes that until the gap is fixed in this sport, follow your dreams relentlessly, follow in the footsteps Odicci left for you.”
Senior Lynsey Meeks inspired girls everywhere with her unabashed love for the game, regardless of her physical stature.
“The likes of Odicci Alexander, Lynsey Meeks and co. have paved a new path for so many young athletes who aspire to play just like them,” said Butler.
These intangibles spoke loudly and showed that JMU's players, despite their race, physical limitations or any preconceived notions about them, refused to conform to society’s ideals for Division I softball players. As a result, the representation on display at the 2021 WCWS will create opportunities for other mid-major teams to follow.
“JMU inspired me as a coach to stay the course,” Tyson added. “It’s so much bigger than what you don’t have. At mid-majors, you can create magic with what you do have.”