Jerry Carter: A magical day in OKC for JMU softball
When you get to write for the fun of it, it’s always fun to write. I am 40 years into my favorite hobby which is searching out for the feel good story and then shining a light on what is right in the world.
Over the years I have been asked why I insist on covering everything like it’s the deciding game of the World Series? I am quick to respond because it is to someone, whether it’s an athlete or a parent or a coach, maybe just a life long fan of a team.
Thursday proved to be a magical kind of day when my personal story intersected with a story that received airtime on SportsCenter!
I found myself in Oklahoma City because my favorite high school softball coach, Alan Knight was being represented by his prized pupil, Kate Gordon, on the biggest stage that college softball offers, the College World Series. Gordon and her James Madison University Dukes teammates managed to qualify for the event as just the eighth unseeded team in the history of the event.
The Georgia Bulldogs beat them to the punch by one day when they became the seventh team after sweeping Florida with back-to-back shutouts in Gainesville last weekend.
There is a laundry list of obstacles that both Gordon and the Dukes had to clear before punching their Golden ticket to OKC. JMU was an up-and-coming program just as the press conference where Gordon inked her letter of intent, but one year in they suffered a potential major setback when the program’s head coach, Mickey Dean, packed up and headed to the Southeastern Conference, accepting the top spot at Auburn University.
JMU was beginning to experience a bit of success and playing in their new digs after seasons of playing in older ballparks. Facing a tough decision on how to move forward the administration, elected to promote from within by naming Loren LaPorte to the top spot, and they are now being rewarded as LaPorte has taken the Dukes to the Promised Land for the first time in the program’s history.
Check off replacing the skipper and then a pair of heartbreaking defeats in the Super Regionals, once as the host school and once on the road. The next obstacle completely blindsided the Dukes and the rest of the world when COVID-19 forced the cancelation of the 2019-2020 season.
Even as the current season was trying to get mapped out, the Dukes once again found themselves behind the proverbial eight ball as the Colonial Athletic Association elected to play was pretty much resembled a conference-only schedule with limited exceptions. JMU put together an amazing 34-1 mark headed into the NCAA postseason, but the team played close to 20 less games then most of the other top-level schools.
The NCAA pointed the unseeded Dukes towards Knoxville, Tenn., after the team swept the CAA Tournament without surrendering a single run over three games. Gordon had herself a week of a lifetime in that sweep, earning the senior the Division 1 National Player of the Week.
The postseason bracket would send the Dukes to consecutive SEC schools in Tennessee and Missouri. There was hope in that the team was grouped with the #8 and #9 seeded teams, but it also meant that if JMU could somehow advance to the WCWS they would find the #1 seed and absolute juggernaut Oklahoma.
Fellow senior and smalltown star Odicci Alexander (Boydton) set a program record with 19 strikeouts against Liberty University in the 10-inning opener in Knoxville. After besting the Flames, 4-3, the Dukes tripped up the Vols, 3-1, thanks in part to a Gordon long ball, and after Liberty surprised the Vols, it was just the Flames standing between the Dukes and a trip to Missouri.
The second battle with LU only took seven innings, and the 8-5 victory sent the Dukes back to Harrisonburg for repacking purposes before heading to their third Super Regional showdown in a rather small window. The Tigers were well rested after sweeping their regional without allowing a single run.
JMU plated two late runs to steal the opener, 2-1, but Missouri capitalized on a rare Dukes miscue to plate five unearned runs in their 7-1 equalizing victory last Saturday. Staring a third straight heartbreaking end to a season, the Dukes quickly fell behind 1-0 on Sunday after a first inning solo home run, but this time Alexander locked in, and her offense rallied for seven runs and the elusive clinching victory, 7-2.
Gordon struggled all three games in Columbia, but her teammates had her back, and now the Dukes’ goose had finally laid the golden egg. You can’t make your second trip to the WCWS until you earned your first, and this group had climbed every mountain in their path. It was time to go to OKC, even if it was to fed to the Sooner in the opening game.
Back in the early 1970s, so much was made about North Carolina State winning the men’s basketball national championship because the Wolfpack had been given a ridiculous advantage. I would have said, as an 11-year-old, that the advantage was getting to have David Thompson play for Norm Sloan, but to the rest of the basketball world, it was that NCSU never left the state of North Carolina in capturing the crown.
Fast forward to the current edition of the Boomer Sooner ,who as the #1 team in the country were the host team of their regional and their Super Regional. Not only were they crushing everyone on their way to an astounding 50-2 mark, but now they were able to never leave their area code. The building holds 13,000, and against the Dukes there were 12,500 fans pulling for OU.
Oklahoma State fans were cheering on their rivals because when both teams dispatched the overmatched overachievers the Bedlam Rivalry would take place in Prime Time on Friday night. I flashbacked to the NCAA basketball committee that stacked the deck years ago to set up a “dream” second round game between Louisville and Kentucky, but a pesky Middle Tennessee State ruined those plans. I am the ultimate optimist, but I felt the Dukes’ best shot was to win in the consolation bracket against Georgia on Saturday morning.
OU scored in double figures in half their victories, including a 9-1 mercy rule win over #16 Washington, to seal their trip. Alexander is incredibly talented, but this lineup was simply stacked. JMU scored first on a three-run home run from Sara Juba, but OU answered back with a three-run shot of their own. Then the first of the two amazing things happened, in that Alexander did what nobody else could in holding the Sooner to those three runs. Even in their two defeats, they plated four and six runs, but Alexander was on her game.
The game was still knotted at 3-3 at the end of regulation, and Gordon’s hitless streak was still intact. A sparkling sliding catch in left prevented a Sooner uprising before the game headed to the eighth inning. It had been a pleasure to be the one that introduced Gordon at every home game for her four-year career at Page County High School in Shenandoah, but now I just wanted her to get on base to start a one-out rally.
The count was quickly 3-0, and Shannon Saile tossed was appeared to be ball four, and Gordon leaned towards first base, but a delayed strike was called, and the battle continued. I had traveled to OKC to show support for this amazing young lady and all her dedication to the game over her career, and then the next pitch sailed over the left center field fence, and for a brief moment I felt like the little boy in the hospital that had a famous home run hit for him.
Then I quickly realized that the home run might have been hit for a few others, like her current teammates as well as all of the former Dukes that were in attendance to celebrate the biggest victory against the biggest opponent on the biggest stage of stages.
Wanting to claim the home run as my home run is part of what sports fantasy is about, and then the Pride of Buggs Island Lake returned to the mound and finished the mission she had started hours earlier.
Alexander and Gordon are just two of the great parts of a tremendous team and for the night they all get to bask in the glory!
Story by Jerry Carter