True grit

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President Alger addresses the crowd assembled June 8 to welcome home the softball team from the Women's College World Series.

SUMMARY: JMU softball captured the nation’s attention during the Women's College World Series, winning new fans along the way.

By President Jonathan R. Alger

On June 8, I had the chance to join hundreds of members of our JMU community as we greeted the JMU women’s softball team after their historic run to the semifinals of the NCAA Division I Women's College World Series. With repeated wins on the road in Tennessee, Missouri and then Oklahoma against seeded teams from highly resourced “Power 5” conferences, the unseeded Dukes from the Shenandoah Valley captivated the heart of a nation with their spirit, courage and resilience. They logged thousands of miles of travel over an extended period, only to face two powerhouse teams from Oklahoma who had not had to venture more than an hour or so from their home campuses throughout the NCAA tournament. Those miles were an apt metaphor for the odds the Dukes overcame to reach the sport’s pinnacle.

This story was about much more than softball, however. What we saw during those magical few weeks was a group of determined young women who exemplified teamwork and the very best of humanity after a difficult year, at a time when we all needed signs of hope and inspiration. They were not the biggest, strongest or most highly recruited athletes at the World Series. But they had something else altogether—true grit. They literally gave it all on the field, as exemplified by pitcher Odicci Alexander’s national highlight-reel diving tag at home plate to preserve a victory against Oklahoma State, and by 4-foot 11-inch infielder Lynsey Meeks’ dramatic throw on her knees for a crucial out at first base. The team played through significant injuries and the challenges brought forth by COVID simply to have a season at all.

The special moments were not just on national TV and on the ballfield, however. I had the privilege of watching in our hotel lobby in Oklahoma City as a small crowd of young girls and their families gathered to greet the team after one of their astounding World Series wins. Tired, not yet fed, and still in uniform, the players took that moment to pose for selfies and sign autographs while encouraging little girls to follow their dreams. It wasn’t just the little girls who were captivated, of course—I have heard from grown men and women all across the country who found inspiration and joy in watching this team show what it means to strive for your fullest potential when the stakes are high and the obstacles seem overwhelming.

As a university president, I’m often asked why our institutions invest in athletics. I remind people that this kind of competition involves education both on and off the field. The players develop crucial skills like teamwork, leadership, communications, problem-solving, time management, work ethic and emotional intelligence that prepare them for success in careers and in life. Indeed, these extraordinary student-athletes have distinguished themselves in the classroom and on the diamond. And at an institution where 60% of our students are women, this Women’s College World Series reminded us all that young women can, and must, be given the same opportunities and encouragement as men to compete at the highest level.

Going forward, my colleagues and I will continue to advocate for opportunities for gender equity in athletics and in all aspects of our educational mission. We owe it to those little girls in the hotel lobby, and the millions like them who are our daughters and granddaughters. And we just might be surprised by the source of that next spark of inspiration when we need it the most. Go Dukes!

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Published: Friday, August 20, 2021

Last Updated: Wednesday, November 1, 2023

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