Despite facing possibly the toughest schedule in college softball, Kenny Gajewski and his coaching staff’s biggest task might be putting out a lineup card each game.
Gajewski and Oklahoma State have the rare problem of an overabundance of talent to try to fit into 10 spots each contest. That’s what happens after years of climbing the mountain before a breakthrough Women’s College World Series last year, with top-tier recruiting classes and blue-chip transfers culminating in this 2020 squad.
It is a team Gajewski and his players think might be the best in the over 40 years of Cowgirl softball.
“We've got a lot of kids back and we've got a lot of newcomers,” Gajewski said at the team’s preseason media day. “And so, I think it's just blending this group together has been the biggest challenge so far. And I think part of that issue is, this is the most talented we've ever been, but part of that ongoing dilemma all fall is with as much talent as we've had here, this is the most that we've had here. It brings out a different side of people. It’s called competitiveness.”
Like most softball teams, the crucial position is in the circle. After a few years of going through transfer after transfer just to try to stay alive, Gajewski and new pitching coach John Bargfeldt have a good mix of homegrown talent and players from the transfer portal.
Last season was a big moment for the OSU pitching staff as it became a strength on what had been a mostly offensive squad in the previous seasons. Then-seniors Samantha Show and Samantha Clakley were a big part of that. With them gone, though, the Cowgirls don’t take a step back.
Returning in the circle are redshirt freshman Kelly Maxwell, junior Gabby Sprang and the lone 4-year senior on the OSU squad in Logan Simunek. Incoming are freshman Mattison Boyd and transfer Carrie Eberle from Virginia Tech.
Eberle, last year’s Atlantic Coast Conference pitcher of the year, is only at OSU for a year, but has already gotten used to Bargfeldt’s coaching and the new staff.
“I think there was a period of getting used to John’s style,” Eberle said. “All the pitchers know that it is going to take all of us to win. We are all kind of different in how we throw and that’s what is going to make us so good together. John has been really good at individualizing what every person needs. It has been an easy transition so far.”
Eberle arrived at OSU about the same time as Bargfeldt, who coached at Tulsa for years before joining Gajewski’s staff in the summer. Eberle, who also was 2019’s ACC scholar athlete of the year, is from a big-time Hokie family, but came to Stillwater because the university offers a forensic biology degree, which is the path she wants to pursue a career.
The rotation will most likely consist of Eberle, Simunek and Maxwell with Boyd having to fight for playing time as Sprang is struggling with back issues. Gajewski hopes Sprang – a 6-foot-1 left-hander who used to be the top pitching recruit in the country – can get healthy.
However, with a four-woman rotation as good as the one Bargfeldt has, the Cowgirls will still be in good hands. Maxwell, who didn’t play last year because of the logjam at the position, had the best fall of anyone, according to her coach.
“In the fall against what I would call a really good fall schedule against the DI teams that we played, in the 27 batters that she faced, she struck out 25,” Gajewski said. “That hasn't happened here in my time. So, it's left handed, it comes out a little hotter than it seems. So, it's a little heavy. I think it's competitive. She shows zero emotion. So, it's kind of what she had kind of like out there. It's still different than Show, you know, but it's kind of very even keeled. Her and Carrie both.”
With Simunek, who has improved every year she has been here, Gajewski knows she has a variety of off-speed pitches that not many other pitchers have. The Piedmont product has become a leader on the squad.
“It is night and day. I feel mentally and physically, I am just a way different person and just older and mature,” Simunek said. “I have no doubts. I am not scared or anything like I was my freshman year. Now I am excited and ready to play.”
And for Boyd – a tall Sachse, Texas, native – Gajewski said she needs to work on some control problems, but thinks she has a very high ceiling.
“It's like ‘Bull Durham.’ Some days she hits the bull,” Gajewski said. “So it's a work in progress, but she's gonna get her innings, too.”
Behind the plate, the Cowgirls will be going through a bit of a transition. After having Mackenzie Thomas back up the plate for the past two seasons, now it will be a rotation of junior Raquel Dominguez, sophomore Taylor Tuck and freshman Madison Neighbors.
Thomas, a Claremore product, is still on the roster, but because of how strenuous her graduate school program for speech pathology is, she had to give up softball this spring.
Dominguez earned a lot of time last year, because of her hitting power, with Tuck scrapping for time, as well. Gajewski sees it as a good trio and thinks Neighbors might be the best actual pure catcher of the bunch.
“I mean, she's just a better catcher than most of them right now,” Gajewski said. “Taylor Tuck is getting better, but she's a left-handed bat that I love and we don't have enough of those that are in the everyday group right now. So she's attractive in that role. But Neighbors has really come along, too, you know, so we've got a quite maybe our best battle there behind the plate with three kids that deserve time. So we'll catch them all, we'll see who shines when it's all said and done. But right now we're going to catch them all."
Tuck, a Stillwater High graduate, had the best fall according to Gajewski, but she will have to most likely wait until the Cowgirls’ second tournament of the year to get some playing time. During batting session with Eberle earlier this winter, Tuck took a hard-hit ball off her wrist, breaking her scaphoid bone.
Tuck said she thinks the three of them behind the plate have great chemistry and believes it is another strong group on the team.
“I think it is really good. We all get along really well and are able to learn off of each other,” Tuck said. “I can watch both of them catch and I can learn something to help me. Or I can help one of them out. I think that is what makes us good together.”
Half of OSU’s infield from last season is still intact, whereas for the first time in four years, there will be a new person on the bag at second base while Gajewski finally got a left-handed first baseman.
Madi Sue Montgomery graduated, leaving a massive hole in the middle of the infield, but Gajewski is confident in highly touted freshman Karli Petty to fit in as Petty has already won the job.
Montgomery is on the OSU coaching staff as a student assistant and has served as a mentor to Petty, a Southmoore product.
At first base, Gajewski alternated Show on her days off from pitching and Michaela Richbourg. This season, Georgia transfer Alysen Febrey will man the corner. Gajewski’s first player he tried to recruit to OSU the day after he got the job back in 2015 was Febrey, but she turned the Cowgirls down to have a successful career with the Bulldogs.
Febrey, who maintained a mid-300s batting average in the tough Southeastern Conference, said she thinks her experience of being on a WCWS team at UGA will help the Cowgirls make back-to-back trips.
“Yes, they went last year, but they don’t know what it is like coming off of a World Series,” Febrey said. “I think that is something that I have been able to share with my teammates. You can’t just expect it to happen again because you did it last year. It is a whole new team and a new journey. Yes we have a lot of returners, but you have to be in present time.
“Just because they did it last year doesn’t mean we are going to. I think we have more than enough potential to. I think this team is going to be great, but it is all going to have to come together.”
On the left side of the infield might be the best shortstop-third base combo in the Big 12. Junior Sydney Pennington mans the bag with sophomore Kiley Naomi on the dirt.
Naomi impressed last year as seemingly no moment was too big for her and she made play after play in the field. Pennington, who transitioned to third base last season after being at shortstop her freshman year, said she feels more comfortable now at third than she has ever been.
One of the main issues Pennington – a Sand Springs product – struggled with was at the plate as she changed her swing multiple times and seemed to get into her head a bit too much. After an offseason of getting back to her power-hitting roots, Pennington thinks the plate problems are a thing of the past.
“I don’t want to say less coaching, but they have kind of let me do my own thing this year,” Pennington said. “Just saying a couple of things to help me adjust. I am really just trying to hit the ball, and that is the only thing I am trying to do. I am really not trying to overanalyze my swing or really get mechanical about it, so they have really kind of backed off and let me learn and figure out what pitches to hit and how to hit.”
In the outfield is going to be where Gajewski and his crew will get to play with lineups a bit, but returning wise he has three strong contenders in sophomore Chyenne Factor along with juniors Richbourg and Chelsea Alexander.
Factor’s play in both the outfield and at the plate makes her a fixture in center field for years to come. Richbourg will most likely slot in at left as the Broken Bow native’s bat is too explosive to keep out of the lineup, with Gajewski saying she can hold her own in the outfield.
“She runs surprisingly well. Her and Pennington both run better than you could ever think, it's crazy,” Gajewski said. “And she just seems to be the right spots. You know, I mean, and Factor in, in center field and Alexander's right on the cusp again, like she always is. And we got some others out there as well. You know, I mean, it's, it's kind of fun to watch.”
Alexander, whose speed in the field is unmatched, will have to fight off contenders because of her work at the plate. The Latta product has continued to earn time over the years after being lightly recruited, but it will be a tough challenge with the amount of hitters Gajewski is trying to cycle in.
One who might get playing time in the field early is junior Haley Busby, who transferred from Virginia, where she hit nearly .400 last season for the Cavaliers.
“Really thinking about her being the DP and we decided to take a look at our outfield and when I watched her throw and move I was like, pretty good,” Gajewski said of Busby. “It’s a good arm we got out there and a kid has got a good softball IQ.”
Looking to get in the outfield will be players like senior Shalee Brantley, sophomore Mady Lohman and freshman Jule Callaham.
Rounding out the batting order at designated player will most likely be Sydney Springfield, who after multiple shoulder injuries is healthy. Before Febrey transferred, Springfield looked like she might slot in at first. Springfield had clutch hit after clutch hit down the stretch last year in spare time after transferring in from Louisiana State.
The 5-foot-11 redhead has earned the spot of DP like pretty much every player in the OSU rotation, with her bat, on a team where competition is thriving right now.
"So by hitting, it's creating some different unique challenges, but if you hit you're gonna play, and that's what I've always told them all,” Gajewski said. “So we're not settled.
“I just don't know where all their where they're all going to come from yet, you know, but Richbourg is going to have another great year and I think Pennington’s gonna have as good a year, as as she's had without a doubt and all these kids should be a little bit better as we go along.”
What: No. 13 OSU vs. No. 11 LSU in Tiger Classic
Where: Baton Rouge, Louisiana
When: 6 p.m. Friday
How to watch: SEC Network Plus