Now she's grand marshal of a parade she once watched
Growing up in tiny Palmer Springs, Va., Odicci Alexander remembers how she excitedly attended Christmas parades in nearby South Hill, an annual tradition in Southside Virginia.
This year will be different. When the parade lines up in formation on Dec. 5, the 23-year-old will be leading the procession as grand marshal, a fitting conclusion to a year that has seen her reach the highest levels of softball.
It’s a story that is equal parts determination, goodwill and devastating curveballs.
“All the attention and the accolades have been so overwhelming,” says Alexander, the 2021 NCAA Pitcher of the Year and a finalist for the ESPY award for best female college athlete.
“I wonder when it will stop, but I’m just embracing everything and enjoying the moments. I mean, I have been to just about every South Hill Christmas Parade growing up, and now I’m going to be the grand marshal. That’s just so mind-boggling.”
One of the most honored titles in a rural community is that of grand marshal in a town’s local parade. For Alexander, the honor is fitting. During the recent 2021 NCAA Division I Women’s College World Series, she stunned and inspired the nation with her pitching prowess and her unstoppable determination as an athlete.
“All the attention and the accolades have been so overwhelming.”
She led the James Madison University Dukes to a 39-2 season record before an epic World Series performance, where she threw 1,057 pitches, with 66 strikeouts, against four opponents.
Against all odds, she kept her eye on the ball. She unwaveringly led her unseeded JMU against fifth-seeded Oklahoma State and eventually against the top-seeded Oklahoma, astoundingly winning games against those powerhouse dynasties that dominate the collegiate women’s softball world.
While Oklahoma ultimately won the championship, Alexander and her team’s moxie culminated in the women’s tournament not only outperforming, but also being watched by more viewers, than the men’s College World Series.
At the end of it all, Alexander received a thunderous standing ovation as she walked off the mound.
“The unseeded Dukes from the Shenandoah Valley captivated the heart of a nation with their spirit, courage and resilience,” JMU President Jonathan R. Alger said following the tournament.
“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.”
Often the only Black girl on her team, Alexander says she was no stranger to obstacles and developed a need to take control of her life at a young age. She tried out for several sports and found that softball gave her what she was looking for.
“It makesme happy to know that women’s softball is growing in popularity in general, and that opportunities are opening up for girls of all colors.”
“I wanted control and I was always in control as a pitcher,” she says. “I wanted the ball.”
Odicci, pronounced Odyssey, was raised by her grandparents in Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative territory, and credits them with supporting her every step of the way. Her grandfather, Washington Alexander, has physical proof of her persistence.
“We have a well pump surrounded by cinder block in our backyard,” he says. “She and I painted some targets on it to be able to practice her pitching. She would be out there seven days a week practicing. After school and on the weekends, she would be out there, practicing her pitching until dinner or until it got dark out. She got really accurate and really good at it. Some of those cinder blocks are now dented because she hit them with a softball in the exact same spot thousands of times.”
Her great-aunt, Doreen Alexander, says Odicci always seemed to have a penchant for sports.
“As far back as I can remember, Odicci loved hitting a ball,” she says. “As a little girl she’d hit stones with a stick to pass the time while waiting for a school bus. Her grandfather, my brother, also loved baseball and instilled some of that into her. He helped her every way he could. He traveled to all her games when she was in school, and he and Emily [Odicci’s grandmother] did an amazing job raising her.”
Mecklenburg County District 8 Supervisor David A. Brankley, who coached Alexander on travel teams when she was in high school, says her talent stood out even then.
“She was a great athlete, heads above all her teammates,” he says. “And, ironically, she was only 14 and playing with 18-year-olds at that time. Her grandfather had to bring her to practices because she couldn’t drive yet.”
As a member of the South Hill Dixie Belles softball team, Alexander and her teammates won the 2011 and 2012 World Series Championships. As a member of the Park View High School Dragons, Alexander was named to All-Conference, All-District and All-State teams for softball.
Brankley says Alexander’s pitching style was largely self-taught; additionally, she was always the best bunter on her team. Alexander learned a lot of her pitching techniques simply by watching YouTube videos, and then mastering what she saw. “Anything is possible to self-teach if you want it bad enough,” she laughs.
Brankley called it an honor to coach her.
“Only one in a lifetime like her comes along around here,” he says. “That’s why when she was only 17, Mickey Dean [then JMU, now Auburn women’s softball coach] saw her at the Virginia high school state championship semifinal in 2014, called her the best player on her team, and eventually made her a Division I offer.”
Brankley says that in addition to being talented, Alexander was innately kind and humble throughout her softball career and always willing to help her teammates in any way they needed.
Alexander’s current agent, Terence Tarrer of FSM Sports, agrees, referring to his client as “such a good person at heart who has done things the right way.”
In August, the Mecklenburg Board of Supervisors passed a resolution in honor of Alexander’s “spirit, calm demeanor, natural athleticism and humble attitude ...”
So it was only natural for her to headline the South Hill parade she once watched as a child.
“The Mecklenburg County Chamber of Commerce asked her, and Odicci graciously accepted,” says Brankley.
Games come and go. Not so for the influence Alexander now has on a new generation of young female athletes who look up to her, especially young Black girls.
She talks about young admirers coming up to her at games, and even in the supermarket, to ask her for autographs and to sign jerseys.
“That’s very heartwarming to me,” she remarks. “I see girls wearing my jersey and I totally understand that. As the first Black girl to pitch at a World Series and the only Black girl on the JMU team for the first two years, there weren’t a lot of role models out there for me at that level, so I totally get it.
“The meaning behind my name holds a huge value in my life and serves as a reminder that every apect of my journey has led me to where I am today.”
“I’m happy to accommodate my fans. It also makes me happy to know that women’s softball is growing in popularity in general, and that opportunities are opening up for girls of all colors.”
Now a member of the USSSA Pride, a professional softball team that is part of the Women’s Professional Fastpitch League, and also playing with the Athlete’s Unlimited Softball League, Alexander says her life truly has been an “odyssey.”
“The meaning behind my name holds a huge value in my life and serves as a reminder that every aspect of my journey has led me to where I am today,” Alexander says. “I couldn’t have done it without the support of my loving family. I really can’t thank them enough for everything they have done for me, and I just thank God for blessing me with such great grandparents.”