Jun 4, 2016, 12:21 PM EDT
It was the classic backyard scene that every kid creates in his or her head growing up playing softball or baseball. Two outs, bases loaded in the final inning, and you’re at the plate with a chance to win the game.
Every player, coach or fan wants that opportunity and of course, hopes (or plans out in their head) that they will come through if given the shot. But like many situations when you’re a kid or an adult, it’s a heck of a lot easier said than done when it really comes down to the moment.
That’s exactly the stage that was set for James Madison senior Jailyn Ford last Saturday afternoon in the NCAA Softball Harrisonburg Super Regional. Ford, who even before her then-final collegiate at-bat was already considered one of the Dukes’ all-time greats, came to the plate with her team down one run to the SEC foe LSU Tigers.
As one can guess by the way this story started and was set-up, the senior did not come through with the headline hit. This time, at least.
“Always feel good about Jailyn Ford. Always,” JMU head coach Mickey Dean said postgame when asked about Ford coming to the plate in that situation. “Because I know without Jailyn Ford, we’re not even in that position. Without Jailyn Ford, without Erica (Field), without Hannah (Hayes), without our seniors, we’re not even in that position. That’s the nature of the beast. It’s such a great game, but it’s a humbling game. When they put the uniform on, they agree to that. That’s just part of it.”
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from Ford’s final at-bat, especially the moments after as the game ended with a strikeout and LSU players celebrating their victory, was how Ford, her own teammates and the thousands of Harrisonburg spectators responded to the outcome.
Obviously, there was disappointment, sadness and even shock. But there was also an even greater appreciation for what the JMU Softball program had already accomplished.
“Look, when you go out there and you work as hard as they do and you work as hard as they did in that game, the loss hurts,” Added Dean. “It hurts. I told them it won’t go away for a while. But you can’t be disappointed in your effort. … We know that. As a coach, I am not disappointed in their effort, not at all. I’m just happy that we were able to bring great softball here. So many people got to see it, I wish we would have won, but it is what it is.”
Despite falling one game, one win and one pitch away from becoming the first CAA team to ever reach the Women’s College World Series; this year’s JMU team, and more directly, it’s three-member senior class, still has plenty to hang their hat on.
Ford, along with seniors Erica Field and Hannah Hayes capped their respective careers with too many program records and accomplishments to list, but here’s a few eye-opening accomplishments that can’t be ignored: The trio started and played in 233 consecutive games over four years, broke the JMU single-season wins record four years in a row, appeared in the NCAA postseason four straight seasons and also won two CAA Championships.
“He (coach Dean) talks a lot about how we changed this program, but I think the program has changed us, too,” Ford said after Saturday’s loss. “That might be cliché to say but you can tell if we’re emotional after a game, it obviously means a lot to us. To put some much energy and effort and just passion into a sport and have it taken away after four years, I mean it’s tough. Hopefully it’s a good learning lesson for the underclassmen, for the juniors to be able to take the feeling of this and use it as motivation for next season and the seasons to come. Hopefully we can just have an impact on the program like that, be able to encourage them to reach higher, to get to the World Series.”
Madison’s fans did not disappoint over the two-day Super Regional, setting new Veterans Memorial Park attendance records on Friday (2,331) and Saturday (2,525). The small, but loud, contingent of LSU fans took notice, too, giving a full standing ovation to the Dukes moments after the defeat.
“I have no regrets or anything about our team, I thought they played their butts off. Somebody’s got to win, somebody’s got to lose. When you get down these last 16 teams, there’s only one that’s going to walk off that field with a smile on their face. But I can promise you, when see these young ladies a week or two weeks from now, they’re going to have huge smiles because they’ve taken a program that nobody knew anything about four years ago, they just didn’t know who they were, and they gave them a national face.
During an emotional, but optimistic press conference after the loss, Dean continued to express his gratitude to his senior trio.
“I couldn’t be more proud of our senior class. They’ve done what they can do. They’ve taken us as far as they possibly could. Now it’s up to our underclassmen to earn the right to wear the uniform and take it farther. That’s our goal.”
Sophomore Megan Good, who hit three home runs against LSU in the Super Regional, all of which turned a one-run deficit into a tie game, put it simply when asked about what the three seniors have taught her.
“I’ve learned so much from them,” said Good of Field, Ford and Hayes. “I honestly have looked up to them all year. Jailyn, being a pitcher just learning from her throughout the year, and Erica being my catcher, batting so well this season. Hannah being center of the outfield, center of left field, I relied on them a lot. They’re going to be big spots to fill, but I think we can do it.”
For Field and Ford, their playing careers haven’t ended just yet. On April 14, the duo became the first two draft picks in James Madison softball history at the 2016 National Pro Fastpitch College Draft. Ford was selected in the first round as the third overall pick by the Akron Racers and Field was drafted by the USSSA Pride in the third round and the No. 18 overall pick.
Even Dean joked that in just a few weeks, he’ll be watching both players play professionally.
“She’s (Ford) going to be in Akron in about two weeks and she’s going to get in that same situation and boom. I’m going to be standing there and she’s going to be smiling. Hopefully it’s not against Erica’s team,” Laughed Dean.
When the Dukes finally do get a chance to reflect on their historic season, whenever that may be, they can certainly look back knowing it had a whole lot more to do than one tough loss.
“I am amazed what these young ladies have done for this university, for the community and for this program,” Dean said in a closing statement. “I’ve been coaching for a long time and been a lot of places and I can’t ever remember having a team having such an impact on an entire community. Not just softball, the community service, going to other sports games, spending 45 minutes after a ball game just to talk to some kids. I can’t believe that they go out and then play for five hours and they’re willing to take 45 minutes to talk to a bunch of 10 year-olds. I couldn’t be more proud. I’m just telling you. I’m so proud of them, you have no idea.”
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