It’s the end of a journey, but the inspiration is just beginning.
JMU softball’s historic run in the Women’s College World Series (WCWS) may have come to an end, but its impact won’t go away any time soon. JMU garnered national attention as shown by the thousands of new fans that supported JMU Nation. The Dukes poured themselves into their postseason journey and captured the hearts of fans, including travel players. The new fans lined up to see the team for photos, autographs and words of encouragement.
One softball player, Madison Lumpkin, fell in love with JMU because of the small town story. She followed the team throughout the WCWS journey and had the opportunity to congratulate the Dukes following Monday’s game.
“I love this team so much because I’m from a small town, too,” Lumpkin said. “Sometimes it’s hard, but they fought through.”
It all began when JMU traveled to Missouri for the Super Regionals, defeating the Tigers in a seventh inning explosion for a 7-2 win to clinch the program’s first WCWS berth. After that, eyes slowly began to drift toward the Dukes.
Once the 4-3 upset win over No. 1 Oklahoma happened, the team rocketed into social media super-stardom. Redshirt senior Odicci Alexander became the star of the WCWS, and everyone wanted to talk to her.
Dominique Vargas, a travel softball pitcher, became a Dukes fan because she felt Alexander’s story resembled her own journey, saying that the redshirt senior inspired her to make her own mark.
“It affected me because all these girls who were told they weren’t going to make it made it big,” Vargas said. “Just seeing [Alexander] out there being where she is now has really affected me.”
Alexander’s story from a hometown softball pitcher to a WCWS legend has inspired athletes and fans all across the nation. Coaches, players and fans from all over began offering her congratulations on her achievements throughout the tournament, including Washington Football Team head coach Ron Rivera and former tennis star and prominent LGBTQ rights activist Billie Jean King.
Fans saw the excitement the Dukes gained for just being themselves, giving them more reasons to follow closely. Everywhere in Oklahoma City, fans were buzzing about the Dukes and Alexander, complimenting and praising the fight, integrity and energy she and the team brought against each opponent.
“I think it’s been amazing for them to be the underdogs and inspire others like this,” JMU fan Brenda Samuels said. “As a big softball fan, it’s always exciting to see a team that puts in that extra work.”
At every chance, young softball players could be found lining up around the JMU bus hoping to catch a glimpse of the Dukes. After their final game, the team stood outside their bus for nearly an hour interacting with the players, signing softballs and taking pictures. For Marty Dearing, he said seeing JMU succeed and support young players helps inspire his daughter Collins in her early softball journey.
"[Collins] started playing softball this year and she's really fallen in love with it," Dearing said. "She wanted to be someone famous and chose Kate Gordon."
Another player that stole hearts was redshirt senior infielder Madison Naujokas, who brought her love for JMU fans along with her. Many Dukes fans have close relationships with her and cheered her on both in Oklahoma City and in Harrisonburg.
One particular fan even got a surprise birthday party from Naujokas and is now a fan for life. JMU fan Logan Wampler shared a close bond with Naujokas — often going to games throughout her JMU career. His mother, Brittany Wampler, said their relationship has allowed her daughter to attend JMU softball camps and fall in love with the sport as well.
“With Madison, her and my son developed this relationship that ultimately led to us going to a lot of games to see her,” Wampler said. “We’ve always spoken highly of these girls and their compassion with kids — it’s incomparable to others in the area.”
At the end of the road, the world has shown its gratitude for JMU softball. Oklahoma head coach Patty Gasso said during Monday’s press conference the fight and generosity JMU displayed over the last five days has changed the softball world forever.
“They made us better, and more than anything, I think they've brought a lot of fans into the fold of college softball,” Gasso said. “They were fun to root for, they were fun to watch.”
As more and more spectators jumped onto the JMU bandwagon, possibly the biggest impact was felt by younger players. JMU didn’t take home the trophy, but Vargas said the journey to the WCWS brought an impact for hometown players.
“I just hope they know how much they’ve had an impact on all these girls like me,” Vargas said. “I hope this team just keeps shooting for the stars.”
Contact Madison Hricik at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more sports coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.