‘They can conquer the world’: Oklahoma State’s group of transfers clicking at the right time

THE TRANSFER PORTAL, which drastically altered the foundation of college sports by facilitating the movement of players from school to school, will celebrate its fourth anniversary in October. But the man in charge of leading what is perhaps the premier destination for softball players seeking a second (or third) home still doesn’t know how to get on the actual website to see who’s available.

“I don’t have a login,” Oklahoma State coach Kenny Gajewski admitted during a recent interview. “I don’t ever go on there.”

Granted, there are assistants on staff who are more technologically savvy. Nonetheless, he said, they don’t spend every day online “trying to chase that thing down.”

Instead, he takes an old-school approach, keeping an ear to the ground for potential targets. The softball community is relatively small and well connected. And more often than not, before anyone noteworthy enters the portal, he’ll hear about it first from his players, who might know the would-be transfer from travel ball, recruiting showcases or through a friend of a friend.

“Honestly,” Gajewski said, “people can’t keep their mouths shut.”

That’s how it happened last fall when he started hearing rumblings about a transfer who, if the rumors were true, had the ability to change the landscape of the 2022 season.

If Miranda Elish was returning to college softball for one final season, Gajewski wondered, where would she land?

His gut reaction was one of self-preservation: “I don’t want to see her in our conference.”

Elish was a dominant pitcher who was also a threat at the plate. The No. 1-ranked recruit in 2017, she went 49-2 in her first two seasons at Oregon, earning All-American honors as a sophomore before transferring to Texas, where she won National Player of the Year during the shortened 2020 season, posting a 1.58 ERA and a batting average of .370 as a senior.

But rather than return for a fifth year, she hung up her cleats in 2021, packed her bags and moved to Birmingham, Alabama, where she worked as a private softball instructor.

When Gajewski thought about Elish further, he remembered he knew some people who knew her.

“I might as well dig in,” he figured. “So you start running your channels and seeing if it’s true.”

Why struggle against Elish in the Big 12 or down the road during the NCAA tournament when he could try to bring her to Oklahoma State? The program had already had success with a number of high-profile transfers, including All-Americans Hayley Busby, Carrie Eberle, Alysen Febrey and Samantha Show.

Oklahoma State wouldn’t waste a minute, Gajewski decided. As soon as Elish entered the portal, the program would “attack.”

When he got her on the phone, he didn’t mince words.

“If we’re not in your mix, it’s all good,” he said. “I don’t want to waste your time and I don’t want you to waste mine.”

Elish was intrigued and made the trip to Stillwater, where she connected with the small-town feel. Gajewski could tell the visit went well because they barely talked about softball. He swears he saw a “twinkle in her eye.”

Elish eventually canceled some other recruiting trips and committed to the Cowgirls, making a team that won 48 games and reached the Women’s College World Series even better.

Gajewski remembers watching her first bullpen session. He’d be lying if he said he didn’t notice some rust after more than a year away from the game. She was a little erratic, but she still had a good touch.

But what impressed him most — “I almost fell over,” he said — was her confidence. She had this way of carrying herself.

“I was like, ‘This is one bad girl,'” he said.

“Bad, in a good way.”

AFTER A FEW years of doing this, Gajewski thinks he has a good feel for how a potential transfer would fit into the program, both in terms of technical ability and overall team chemistry. But it’s not something he takes for granted. So whenever there’s a transfer he’s considering offering, he gathers the leadership group — a selection of mostly veteran players — and fills them in, eliciting feedback.

Only once, he said, have they pushed back, when the leadership group flagged some character issues of which he wasn’t aware.

“It wasn’t easy,” he said of walking away from the prospect. “But I trust my kids. … They know the standard.”

It’s that standard that Sydney Pennington points to in an effort to explain why players are accustomed to the yearly threat of outside competition.

“It is tough, I think, for some people,” the veteran third baseman said. “I mean, you do question yourself and ask, ‘Am I good enough?’ Like, ‘Why are we trying to get all these transfers?’ But I think for the most part, our team is very confident in who they are as players and people. So if you’ve won the job, then there shouldn’t be any issue with transfers. If there is an issue, then you need to work harder and prove that you can play.”

Pennington grew up an hour’s drive from campus in Sand Springs and signed with Oklahoma State out of high school. She was a member of the Big 12 All-Freshman Team in 2018 and last season became the school’s career home run leader. And every offseason, it seems, she’s been charged with hosting potential transfers on visits.

She might take them for cheese fries at Eskimo Joe’s and show off what she describes as Stillwater’s “eclectic” vibe. She’ll almost always stop in at picturesque Karsten Creek Golf Course and typically there’s some time built in with the president of the university, Kayse Shrum, whom Pennington said is “very invested” in the program.

Pennington knows the routine well by now. But she’ll admit that when it came time to host Elish, it felt different.

“I’m not gonna lie,” she said, “I was like a little starstruck. I was like, gosh, that’s Miranda Elish.”

Pennington didn’t know what to expect. In the world of softball, Elish was a celebrity, she said. Taking her around town felt “surreal.”

But over the course of the visit, the two settled in and got to know one another. Pennington said Elish was normal, and wickedly funny. She could tell how much Elish missed the game and was looking forward to competing at a high level during her final season.

It was odd, though. On paper, Oklahoma State already had a rock-solid pitching staff and would have been fine without Elish.

Months later, Pennington remembers being struck by something Elish said during her visit about that exact thing: “I want to come to OSU because they don’t need me, but I need them.”

When Elish walked away in 2020, she had no intention whatsoever of returning. She said she had to put her mental health first as she was dealing with depression and anxiety. She had to figure out, she said, “What’s my identity without softball?”

The time away helped put things into perspective. She watched the NCAA tournament and, like everyone else, she felt a thrill as James Madison made its Cinderella run to the WCWS. Watching Odicci Alexander emerge as a star, there was a mix of joy and sadness because she felt a sense, she said, of unfinished business.

Training girls in softball and seeing how much they enjoyed the game inspired her to give it “one more shot.” So she put her name in the portal as a graduate transfer, not knowing what to expect. But she knew what she needed to make a return worth it: a place where she would be valued as more than just a softball player, a place built on real relationships, a place that felt like family.

When she spoke to former transfers Show and Eberle, she couldn’t help but feel as if they’d chosen to enter the transfer portal for similar reasons. And not only did they find success at OSU, they clearly found something more since they were both still there. Eberle is a grad assistant on staff, while Show is a frequent visitor who recently spent the week with the Gajewski family.

It was the epitome of what Elish heard from Gajewski during the recruiting process: “If you’re just trying to bridge a gap, I don’t want you here. I want people that want to be here forever.”

Elish was sold.

“I knew without a doubt, after playing against OSU and watching their program the last couple of years, that they epitomized what I wanted in a program,” she said.

Before it was settled, Gajewski made sure to talk to his junior pitcher and first team All-Big 12 pick Kelly Maxwell about how she felt. Maxwell was poised to become the ace of the staff and Elish’s addition would no doubt affect her most.

Maxwell didn’t bat an eye. She agreed that they could benefit from Elish. What’s more, she exuded the kind of confidence Gajewski hopes all his players have when she said it didn’t change a thing for her, she still wanted to be an All-American.

“You know,” Gajewski said, “when you get a group of women that are powerful, together and all on the same page, they can conquer the world.”

LAYING SIEGE TO college softball hasn’t happened overnight, however. During the St. Pete/Clearwater Elite Invitational, for example, Oklahoma State lost three of five games.

For a long time, the team just wasn’t clicking.

And it’s no wonder: With so many newcomers, it takes time to jell.

Because it wasn’t just Elish who was finding her way in a new place. It was also former Illinois State All-Missouri Valley Conference pitcher Morgan Day, former Florida All-SEC newcomer catcher Julia Cottrill and former Kansas All-Big 12 infielder Morgyn Wynne. And that’s to say nothing of a six-person freshman signing class — five of whom were listed among Extra Inning Softball’s Extra Elite 100 rankings.

Adding so many quality pieces, the Cowgirls succumbed to overconfidence. They believed, Pennington said, “we’re gonna be the best team in the nation.”

“But I think that we were too set on that and we didn’t show it,” she added.

The team wasn’t bad by any means. It just wasn’t playing to its potential. There were too many mistakes in the field. At the plate, the Cowgirls weren’t playing team offense, moving the runner over like they should.

It was death by a million paper cuts. They’d let the little things slide for too long.

“We’re gonna be the best team in the nation. … I think that we were too set on that and we didn’t show it.”

Oklahoma State third baseman Sydney Pennington

That all came to a head near the end of a Tulsa Invitational, which was delayed because of bad weather. On Wednesday, they won the first game of a doubleheader against Minnesota — but barely. They walked seven batters. An error led to the game-tying run in the seventh inning. It wasn’t until the 10th inning that Oklahoma State prevailed 7-6.

Between games, the players huddled up. It couldn’t have lasted more than 10 minutes, but the mood was serious. They spoke about not paying attention to the details and accountability. They agreed they weren’t living up to the standard.

Gajewski noticed the gathering. He’d been irritated for a while, he said, by what he saw as selfish behavior. It was fine that some players were upset by being off to slow starts, but he felt their attitude was impacting the rest of the team, and that wasn’t OK.

So he popped his head into the huddle, listened for a minute and loved what he heard.

“I’m on board with what you guys are saying,” he told his team. “But it’s time to stop talking. It’s time to start acting. We have a standard here that is high and some of you aren’t meeting it because of your own personal success. If you’ll put that all aside, you’ll have the personal success that you want. But if you’re not on board 100% behind your teammates, it’ll never happen.”

Gajewski then singled out Elish.

“She’s one of the ones who’s come in here and all she’s trying to do is make sure that she doesn’t affect any of you,” he said. “Some of you need to take a look at her because this is what the standard is.”

The huddle broke, and Elish threw a complete-game no-hitter and Oklahoma State beat Minnesota, 7-0.

Since then, the Cowgirls have gone 24-4 and are ranked No. 7.

Gajewski has seen a change in his team over that time. It’s been cool to watch, he said. At one point, he had to sit his All-American outfielder, Hayley Busby, for a few weeks amid a slump. She returned to the lineup against Iowa State and had three hits during the two-game series.

“We’ve been way better since that point [against Minnesota],” Gajewski said. “We’re getting better every week and I think the best is yet to come.”

On Thursday, that improvement will be put to the test in the form of a three-game series at No. 1 Oklahoma to end the regular season.

Elish said it took her a few weeks to get back into the routine of a college athlete, and so far she has been a steady force, ranking first on the team in batting average (.378) and slugging (.659). She has also 13-4 as a pitcher. In 104 innings pitched, she has given up 31 earned runs and stuck out 128 batters.

Oklahoma State has the talent and is back headed in the right direction. The question is whether there’s time to reach its full potential.

“Even though we may take our bumps here and there, we learn from them and we get better the next game,” Elish said. “We hope for what everybody else in the college softball world hopes to do: make it to the World Series and win a national championship. But we understand we have to take one game at a time in order to do that.”

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