The tears started as soon as pitcher Odicci Alexander realized she had no more left to give James Madison, and in that moment, a little part of the college softball world had its hearts broken, too.
For five glorious days, Alexander became the story of the Women's College World Series, the ultimate underdog player taking the ultimate underdog team to the brink of a national championship.
She did it with determination, swag and a repertoire of pitches that befuddled the No. 1 team in the nation, Oklahoma, in an opening-day upset last week; and she did it with resilience and intensity, and a smile that told everyone she knew she belonged in Oklahoma City, even though only one Division I coach recruited her.
Alexander started all four games James Madison played in the WCWS, and the workload started to take a toll Monday in an elimination game against Oklahoma. The day before, she took a ball off her foot in the fourth inning but stayed in the game and finished it. She was back to start Monday, wincing through the pain because, quite simply, there was absolutely no way she would be sidelined. So, she pressed forward, and pitched three scoreless innings as James Madison led 1-0 early.
Oklahoma took the lead in the bottom of the fourth, but when the Sooners scored four more in the bottom of the fifth inning, coach Loren LaPorte made the walk to the circle to tell Alexander it was time. Not only was the James Madison season a few outs away from ending, but this would be the last time Alexander would ever put on her Dukes uniform.
As she walked toward the dugout, wiping away tears, the entire near-capacity crowd -- filled with mostly Oklahoma fans -- gave her a standing ovation. You see, Alexander captured imaginations, and earned the respect of her opponents with her unwillingness to ever give up.
"Game recognizes game, and she is a baller," Oklahoma pitcher G Juarez said of Alexander, who struck out 66 batters on 1,057 pitches in 64 2/3 innings in the NCAA tournament. "I have mad respect for her. She gave everything she had, and I think it's really awesome that they did give her that standing ovation. She earned it. She deserves it."
What has made Alexander easy to root for is the way in which she plays the game: a do-whatever-it-takes mentality that comes from her upbringing, as 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 to the arm to return home. He poured everything he had into making Odicci the best pitcher she could be -- and they both understood she would stand out for more than her pitching. It is rare to find Black softball pitchers, let alone elite Black pitchers.
She honed her skills throwing at concrete blocks her grandfather set up in the backyard, painting a circle around the middle as a target.
"She always kept a glove and a ball 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. 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.'"
Still, no recruiters came around to watch her play. It was not until then-James Madison coach Mickey Dean saw her in a game he attended to scout someone else that she finally drew the interest she sought for so long. James Madison provided the perfect opportunity to stay close to home and show all those who passed on her just how sorry they would one day be for not giving her a chance.
But it was not really until the super regionals that the nation started to see her talent, after James Madison upset Missouri to clinch its spot in Oklahoma City. WD Alexander desperately wanted to attend, but doctors would not allow him to travel from Virginia to Oklahoma to watch in person. So he sent his two brothers in his place, along with an aunt and cousins, to form an Alexander family contingent -- complete with a large cardboard cutout of her head to hold up from the stands.
After Alexander opened the WCWS by holding Oklahoma, the best offensive team in the nation, to a season-low three runs, it became easy to label the Dukes a "Cinderella" team even though the James Madison program had been on a steady build for years. Athletic director Jeff Bourne said he was fine with the label.
"It's a chance for the school to come to grips with what we feel like our future can be, but to do this on a national level, with 300 teams, just speaks to something incredibly special," he said.
After that win, Alexander and James Madison became social media sensations, as coaches, teams and players across all sports sent out tweets and other social media posts, including one from UMBC, which upset No. 1 Virginia in the NCAA men's basketball tournament in 2018 as a No. 16 seed.
we see you @JMUSoftball— UMBC Athletics (@UMBCAthletics) June 3, 2021
"I think, single-handedly, James Madison made our sport better because they brought a lot of people in that wanted to watch them," Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso said. "I think that's the ultimate compliment I could give a coach and a program."
The following day, Alexander made the play of the tournament in a 2-1 win against Oklahoma State. When she fielded a ball bunted straight to her, Alexander made a diving play at the plate to tag out Scotland David to preserve the Dukes' lead. James Madison to become the first unseeded team to advance to the national semifinals.
As nine family members watched from the stands, her cousin Brad Holmes said, "She looked like Superwoman out there!"
"That is a play every pitcher dreams of making," said Courtney Blades-Rogers, who was an All-American pitcher at Southern Miss and threw a perfect game in the WCWS in 2000.
The Seattle Mariners had a play at the plate of their own and called it an Alexander "appreciation play."
This was a @2seas__ appreciation play.— Seattle Mariners (@Mariners) June 5, 2021
(via @JMUSoftball) pic.twitter.com/UkZBsn9vEo
After the Oklahoma State game, LaPorte said her team truly started to believe, "Why not us?"
The Dukes held on to that belief until the very end, with Alexander leading the charge. That James Madison failed to make it to the championship series should not diminish what this team -- and Alexander -- accomplished. Think about little girls who look like Alexander watching her in awe, inspired to one day become a WCWS pitcher, too.
"Honestly, my 9-year-old self, I never would have thought I would have been here because I was on my couch watching this at this age," she said. "Just being here, I honestly have no words, but to people who are watching, I hope I inspired you to be yourself and be the best version of yourself."
The shame of it all is this is the last time we will get to see Alexander on a national stage. As her cousin Holmes said, "I'm just wondering if it's too late to put her on the Olympic team. Somebody call the coach!"