OKLAHOMA CITY -- The purple-clad James Madison fans in the crowd started to fidget after Oklahoma State put runners on second and third with one out in the top of the seventh inning, with the Dukes holding what felt like a precarious one-run lead.
They adjusted their hats, or looked down at their feet. James Madison athletic director Jeff Bourne put his hands behind his head and exhaled heavily. The Dukes' run through the Women's College World Series felt improbable but also somehow destined -- a Cinderella team to the nation, but one those in Harrisonburg, Virginia, knew was built for this exact moment.
Because James Madison had the quintessential softball superstar in Odicci Alexander, whose passion, heart, desire, work ethic and nearly unhittable rise ball were all working for the Dukes. They saw her growth over the past five years. They knew what she could do. The rest of the nation is just now clueing in.
When she faltered late against the Cowgirls, there was only one option available: whatever it takes. So with one out and two runners in scoring position, she threw her pitch. Chelsea Alexander bunted the ball right back to her. The squeeze was on. Scotland David came running for home. In that moment, Odicci Alexander had a choice: Make the play herself at the plate, or toss the ball to catcher Lauren Bernett.
Alexander determined she didn't have time to flip it to Bernett. So she lunged forward, and dove at David.
Whatever it takes.
"If that's not Top 10 SportsCenter, I don't know what is, because that's probably the best play I've ever seen in a career by a pitcher in that situation with that much pressure," James Madison coach Loren LaPorte said.
The job wasn't done. Alexander stayed down for a few minutes and her teammates circled around her, but she got up and went back into the circle to face the same situation again, but with two outs.
"That was fight," Alexander said after the game. "I just got that big out. I wasn't letting up then. I was just ready to get the third one and be done and just win the ballgame."
An 0-2 offering to leadoff hitter Kiley Naomi was popped up into shallow left, and Sara Jubas recorded the final out. As the James Madison players celebrated their historic win on the field and their biggest fans jubilantly hugged and whooped in the stands, Bourne high-fived everyone around him.
"Oh man," he said, "how awesome is that!"
With the 2-1 win over Oklahoma State on Friday night, James Madison became the first unranked team in WCWS history to advance to the semifinals. If the Dukes' opening win against overall No. 1 seed Oklahoma stunned the college softball world, the win over the Cowgirls felt a little more like them proving they belong exactly where they are: in the winners bracket, one win away from the championship series.
"When they went to the CAA championship this year, you could see every game they got better," an exhilarated Bourne said. "They built a sense of family and synergy. So I figured we were on our path. Now, I'll be honest, I didn't think we could get through as far as we have, given all the teams that we're facing, but they keep getting better, and they continue to fight. And you have to love their spirit. It's infectious. It really is."
The spirit begins with Alexander, who grew up in a two-stop sign town in Palmer Springs, Virginia, with her grandparents, WD and Emily. The Alexander family has lived in that town for so long, there is a street named after them -- Alexander Ferry Road. WD, a Vietnam War veteran, helped guide Alexander throughout her youth and helped foster her love for softball. That is all she ever wanted to do.
Because WD and Emily could not travel from Virginia to attend the WCWS, the extended Alexander family in Dallas and Kansas City decided to come in their place. WD's brothers, Cliff and Robert, attended both games, as did seven other family members. "I'm just so happy, I could cry," Cliff Alexander said.
Everyone beamed retelling stories about Alexander and the journey that brought her to James Madison.
"She always kept a glove and a ball and wanted to play catch all the time," her great-uncle Robert Alexander recalled. "So I knew she was going to do something in this game. One time I went over her house, and she's about 9 years old. And I would always challenge her. And she struck me out. I couldn't believe that. I was embarrassed. I went back the next day, she did it again. She said don't you try me no more. I said, 'I won't.'"
The family laughed. But getting to James Madison was no sure thing, either. Alexander was overlooked for much of her high school career, until former coach Mickey Dean spotted her while recruiting someone else. What made Alexander so special was not just her ability to pitch, but also her ability to hit.
Alexander won conference Pitcher of the Year honors after another stellar season. Her record now stands at 18-1, with a 1.22 ERA, 197 strikeouts and 15 complete games, including her past three -- the super regional clincher against Missouri, and both WCWS games.
She is no slouch at the plate, either, hitting .329 with 25 hits and 12 RBIs. Against Oklahoma State, she got the scoring going in the first inning, when she raced home all the way from second and scored on a throwing error.
"One time I went over her house, and she's about 9 years old. And I would always challenge her. And she struck me out. I couldn't believe that. I was embarrassed. I went back the next day, she did it again. She said don't you try me no more. I said, 'I won't.'" Robert Alexander, Odicci Alexander's great uncle
The Dukes landed an all-around softball player when they signed Alexander, but more than that, her demeanor has helped define this team and this program.
James Madison was not exactly favored to get here. The Dukes were sent on the road for both the regional and super regional rounds. Riding a 28-game winning streak against Missouri, James Madison lost the second game of the series after Alexander allowed a season-high six runs in her only loss of the season.
But the clinching 7-2 win proved her mettle, as she turned around and threw a four-hitter -- and went 2-for-4 with an RBI.
It is not as if the draw got any easier in Oklahoma City. James Madison faced No. 1 overall seed Oklahoma, which was playing just 30 minutes down the road from its campus in Norman. With Oklahoma fans filling most of the stadium, Alexander went to the circle and calmly delivered another stellar performance, holding the best offensive team in the country to a season-low three runs.
"She's one of the most incredible individuals I've been around," Bourne said. "Obviously, very, very talented, but talk about building spirit and grit and just people love to be around her and they believe in her. And she conveys that sense of belief through every member of that team."
Though she was not as dominant on Friday as she was against Oklahoma, she did enough to get the job done, backed by some incredible defensive plays behind her. James Madison jumped to a quick 2-0 lead, and then Oklahoma State scored in the fifth -- making what happened in the seventh inning even more dramatic.
Alexander's diving play at the plate staved off what could have been a disastrous moment for the Dukes. The only reason Oklahoma State had two runners on to begin with was because of an obstruction call as the Dukes tried to run down and tag David between second and third.
That jam set up the play of the tournament to date.
As LaPorte said afterward, "I think we're at the point where why not? Why not us?"
That is a mantra that applies to Alexander, too.
"I feel like she represents every little girl that's from a small town, that if you work hard, and you have a dream, you can do it," said her cousin, Joyce Holmes. "Don't let anybody tell you what you can't do. Because now she's sitting on ESPN, on the big screen, being a role model to people that look like her."