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JMU fans line up at Memorial Hall to welcome JMU softball home.

A giant inflatable Duke Dog and a swarm of fans awaited the JMU softball team Tuesday as the players returned from their stint in the Women’s College World Series (WCWS). As the bus pulled up and around the driveway of Memorial Hall, the crowd held their signs high, chanting “J-M-U” with the force and fervor that only Dukes can.

Streamers shot across the roped-off walkway as the team, one by one, jumped down from the bus. JMU President Jonathan Alger and now-retired Curt Dudley, former director of broadcasting services for JMU Athletics, welcomed the team alongside other faculty from the athletics department.

After statements from head coach Loren LaPorte and some of the senior players, the team dispersed to greet the crowd, take photos and give autographs to fans.

Redshirt senior outfielder Kate Gordon said she hadn’t expected the large throng of people awaiting them. They’d all gotten the email announcing the event, she said, but it was nothing like what she’d pictured.

“I did not think it would be like that,” Gordon said. “It literally took our breath away, and we just felt even more grateful to play here at JMU with JMU Nation behind us.”

Redshirt senior pitcher Odicci Alexander has become an overnight sensation for her performance last week. The crowd immediately circled around her as she began to sign softballs, posters and T-shirts. She said the outpouring of support has been overwhelming, but she wasn’t expecting such a massive group of fans to be awaiting her return to Harrisonburg.

“I was blown out of my seat, you know, when I pulled up and saw all of that,” Alexander said. “The support from all those fans out there, we couldn’t appreciate that no more.”

Redshirt senior infielderMadison Naujokas said the team owes its success to JMU nation. She said their fans, both at the field and across the world, were there for them even in their eventual defeat.

“[Fans] definitely brought the energy, and I think that helped us stay up even when we were down in the game,” Naujokas said. “We weren’t always winning, but when we were they always were up, and even when we were down, they kept bringing it.”

Two onlookers watched from the shade. Lois Baker, who worked at JMU for 20 years, and her husband Bill said they’ve been watching the team for a while.

“Oh, man, it was great,” Lois said.

She said they’ve kept an eye on Alexander — “the one that was pitching” — and redshirt junior infielder Lynsey Meeks, who became an online sensation for flexing on the field, soliciting cheers from the fans in the bleachers and acting as her team’s personal hype woman. 

“I think she kept the team happy,” Lois said, laughing.

When asked what he thought of the team and this season, Bill kept it short and sweet.

“Super duper,” he said.

Gordon said the team was initially worried about how this year would go in regard to softball and sports. After having their season cut short and being forced to adjust to the pandemic, Gordon said, they decided to leave their difficult year behind them and enjoy the time they had left. 

“We shifted our focus to just being blessed and thankful to be out there for another game,” Gordon said. “When we were in Oklahoma, it was just another game for us. We were just out there enjoying each other for one last game.”

Naujokas also commented on the bond of the team. She said she hoped to leave an impact on next year’s softball team and JMU as a whole.

“I love my girls,” Naujokas said. “I just hope that … we left an impact one way or another, whether it was on the field or off the field. We want them to be better people, we want them to be better players, and I hope that’s something that we did for them.”

Gordon reflected on JMU’s entrance to the world stage and the broad reach of sports — its power to bring people together and create communities.

“Sports, it’s a universal language,” Gordon said. “You don’t really have to understand what’s going on, but it’s fun to follow and we had people all over the world posting to JMU softball.”

For Alexander, the support has been a huge surprise. Since last week’s meteoric rise to stardom beyond JMU Nation, she’s been hit with a wave of love and encouragement from fans — so much so that she was trending on Twitter. Because of the pandemic, the team hasn’t had as many audiences in person, so the welcome event — and the plethora of fans — was unexpected but well-received by Alexander and her team.

“Look at those fans out there,” Alexander said. “That’s outstanding and, you know, we really couldn’t have done it without them, and I appreciate them so much.”

Gordon said that in the massive onslaught of support, they’ve even welcomed unexpected fans — a testament to their skill, but also to their teamwork, JMU spirit and love for the game.

“We have people in Oklahoma shirts saying they’re rooting for us,” Gordon said. “The support is awesome, but it’s even better that we put JMU on the map … People think of us as a small school, but we as a whole JMU Nation proved that we’re not.”

Contact Charlotte Matherly at thebreezeculture@gmail.com. For more sports coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.