BISHOP'S BELIEFS: Cowgirls following in the path of Jordan-era Bulls

Jason Elmquist/Stillwater News Press Oklahoma State’s Rylee Bayless celebrates after scoring on a single by Michaela Richbourg in the first inning of Friday’s Stillwater Regional game against Tulsa.

Before even meeting Kenny Gajewski, Taylor Lynch received a very positive reference from an unknown softball player.

Lynch was committed to playing softball at Oklahoma State, but hadn’t met the newly named Cowgirl coach who left his assistant spot at Florida. She had actually committed under Rich Wieligman, who was fired from OSU after the 2015 season, but remained committed to the Cowgirls after Gajewski was named the program’s successor.

Lynch recalls Gajewski coming to meet and former teammate Madi Sue Montgomery. She said a quick interaction left a mark on her.

“Before I even talked to Kenny, this girl cuts me off when I’m walking to the dugout, and she’s bawling,” Lynch said. “She said, ‘You don’t know how lucky you are to have coach Kenny.’ I was like, ‘OK.’ She was actually committed to Florida, so she was devastated when she found out. The fact that a player went out of their way to tell me how lucky I was about to be that I didn’t even know four years down the road I’d be playing in a World Series because of this guy, that’s big time.”

Four years later – in 2019 – Lynch was competing in the Women’s College World Series as a senior at OSU. She helped the Cowgirls reach the pinnacle tournament of collegiate softball for the first time in 11 years.

Now, she’s watching her former squad compete in the WCWS in Oklahoma City. This year marks back-to-back trips to the event for the Cowgirls.

And, Lynch isn’t surprised. Her first interaction with Gajewski and what that former Florida commit said about him six years ago.

“I always said it would be fun to be a part of Kenny’s first four years, but I’m almost jealous of the players who are going to be here eight years from now, because it’s always been an expectation to the girls every year to go to OKC,” Lynch said. “We may have fallen short of that sometimes, but it’s always our expectation. It’s fun that the expectation happens more consistently. Since Kenny’s first day, OKC has always been the ultimate goal.”

Mackenzie Thomas shared a similar sentiment as Lynch. After all, they were teammates at OSU and both played in the 2019 WCWS.

“It’s almost – I take that back – it is an expectation for the girls to get back to the World Series,” Thomas said. “They’re good and everybody knows they’re good. When I was there, it wasn’t like everybody was out for us, but now everybody wants OSU. They are an elite team.”

Thomas and Lynch helped build the Cowgirl program under Gajewski. In 2017, they were 38-25 in Gajewski’s second season before slightly improving to 39-22 the next year. Yet, OSU lost in the regional round of the NCAA Tournament both years.

It wasn’t until 2019 that the Cowgirls reached their first Super Regional in years. They won the winnner-take-all game at Florida State to clinch a WCWS spot.

In OKC, the Cowgirls upset No. 7 Florida, 2-0, in the opener, thanks to a pair of home runs by Samantha Show. OSU lost the next two games and ended its season 45-17, but the seed was planted for future success.

“Sam Show started flipping bats and we started getting noticed,” Lynch said. “We want that emotion to continue on, and we have a lot of people who play with their heart on their sleeve, and it’s a lot of fun to watch.

“I think it put OSU on a bigger scale than we were already on by just making it to the World Series. We came into the World Series and we made some noise, and Sam Show was a big part of that.”

Creating that memory and doing something that hadn’t been done was one reason Rylee Bayless came to OSU. She was also a part of that 2019 squad.

“When I was getting recruited to Oklahoma State, would I rather go to a program that’s already done this before or do I want to go and change a program?” Bayless asked. “I think this should be huge for recruiting. If I’m a girl that’s wanting to go to a Power 5 successful program, my eye is going to be on Oklahoma State University.

“The culture there has completely changed and if you’re not the right person, you’re definitely going to get ran out of there really quickly, because that team wants nothing more than to keep winning and keep being successful, not just on the field, but off the field, too.”

The 2019 WCWS was an experience Thomas won’t forget.

“It’s absolutely incredible to see what this program has been through since I started with the team in 2017,” Thomas said. “Back then, we were always the underdog and we were always picked behind everyone else in the Big 12. Listening to the commentators, they never expected us to win, but we always had grit and we always believed in each other. In 2019, our motto was ‘For the Girls’ and that’s truly what it was. We played for each other and with each other. That’s what brought us together and allowed us to have so much success.”

Thomas could have been on this year’s team. She was a senior last year, but opted to put education first. She didn’t play last spring due to her school work and the requirements.

If she had played, Thomas could have returned this year with the extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA. Instead, she’s been watching from home and Cowgirl Stadium when she has the chance.

“It’s hard, especially now that postseason is going on,” Thomas said. “Of course, I’d love to be out there with some of my friends and teammates, but at the same time, I just did what I had to do. Coach G and the whole coaching staff was supportive of my decision and my career path. Now, I’m a graduate and thankful for the position that I’m in.

“Mostly, I’m thankful this program is not a four-year deal – it’s a lifetime. Now, I’m a part of this family. I know I’m always welcome back and they want that support, so I’m always going to be there for them and I know they’re always going to be there for me. That’s what allows me to be at peace about not being out there when I could be.”

Thomas said she graduated in May with a masters degree in speech language pathology and landed a job she will begin next month. She will also be getting married, so although her softball days are beyond her, Thomas is enjoying life and what Cowgirl softball has become.

The same could be said for Bayless and Lynch. Bayless is in Alabama going through the hiring process of becoming a firefighter. While doing that, she’s kept up with the Cowgirls and kept in contact with some of her former teammates.

“I’ve turned on the TV every chance I could,” Bayless said. “I text some of the girls before the games still, because I get so excited for them. I just want them to know they’re doing great, even though sometimes it doesn’t show. I tell them to keep swinging their bat, because they’re doing amazing. I’m very happy for this program. They’re one of the best. I don’t really care about the rankings or what anybody says. They’re definitely a top five team. If you sleep on the Cowgirls, you’re probably going to take an ‘L.’”

Lynch is living near where she grew up in Dallas. She’s working for Peloton on the logistics side of the business. She’s also paying close attention to the Cowgirls, and not a bit surprised to see their success while being excited about the future.

“I’m speechless when I think about all of things we’ve been through since Kenny’s first year to where he is now,” Lynch said. “Him and I will shoot texts back and forth. When he beat OU, I was probably the first person to text him. That win against OU hadn’t happened in forever, but everything that happened before that win had to happen for that to happen, and that dates all the way back to Kenny’s first day on campus. It’s fun to watch, but Kenny and I have had these conversations since the first day he got here.

“He called me and said, ‘We’re about to turn this program around,’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, we are.’ The fact that it continues to grow, it starts with him and the people he brought in. He made sure we had the right players here. He made sure he had the right coaching staff to be successful. It’s also our fans – building that corral – and that’s a reason that this program is so successful. It’s fun to see the success, but these conversations have been happening since day one.”

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