How did Kelly Maxwell became Oklahoma State softball ace on way to WCWS? 'A thirst for getting better'

Scott Wright
Oklahoman
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In front of the media contingent at USA Softball Hall of Fame Stadium on Wednesday afternoon, Oklahoma State softball coach Kenny Gajewski leaned toward the microphone and made a potent proclamation.

Cowgirl pitcher Kelly Maxwell, the coach said, has become “one of the best left-handers in the world, pure and simple.”

A strong statement, for sure. But even stronger when you know the analysis Gajewski shared with Maxwell three years ago.

“You know, I don’t know if you’ll be able to play here,” Maxwell remembers Gajewski telling her in an exit interview late in the spring of 2019.

Maxwell hadn’t yet pitched in a competitive game. She had redshirted that season on a pitching staff led by Samantha Show.

“She couldn’t get anyone out here her first year,” Gajewski said last month. “When you know that and you see what she’s become, that’s a special thing.”

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Oklahoma State pitcher Kelly Maxwell is likely to get the start in the circle when the seventh-seeded Cowgirls take on unseeded Arizona in the first round of the Women's College World Series at 8:30 p.m. Thursday at USA Softball Hall of Fame Stadium.

That’s why Gajewski won’t flinch when writing Maxwell’s name into the pitcher’s slot on the lineup card Thursday evening before the seventh-seeded Cowgirls take on unseeded Arizona in the first round of the Women’s College World Series, an 8:30 p.m. start at Hall of Fame Stadium.

Gajewski has confidently sent Maxwell to the circle for big game after big game this season, and nearly every time, she has produced. 

Since the start of the Big 12 Tournament, Maxwell has allowed just one earned run over 30 ⅔ postseason innings. In the NCAA Tournament, she has thrown 20 ⅔ scoreless innings, allowing six hits with two walks and 41 strikeouts, earning three wins and a save.

She has allowed more than two earned runs in just three of her 32 appearances, including 25 starts. 

“She’s pitched against the best teams,” Gajewski said. “She’s had very few days off. She’s had to work. She just goes out there against everyone and dominates. She’s the ace of this staff. She has been, she will be. She may not act like it out loud, but she’s probably the most competitive person on this team in a weird way. 

“She doesn’t get the credit she deserves, because she’s not a fist-pumper and screaming at you after she strikes you out. She doesn’t have that mentality that makes people think, ‘Ooh, ultra-competitive.’ Kelly’s just Kelly.”

That dominance Gajewski mentions shines in her stat line: a 1.16 earned-run average, an 19-4 record with 18 complete games, 11 of which were shutouts. She has struck out 279 batters in 169 innings pitched, an average of 11.6 strikeouts per seven innings, which ranks second nationally.

And the numbers can be directly credited to the inspiration that came out of that meeting with Gajewski three years ago — after what Maxwell recently referred to as “my terrible year.”

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Oklahoma State pitcher Kelly Maxwell answers questions during a press conference Wednesday at USA Softball Hall of Fame Stadium.

“I think that’s just what stemmed everything in my success so far,” Maxwell said of the 2019 exit interview. “I went home that summer and I just worked my butt off. I have a pitching coach back home and I learned how to throw in the glove, and ever since then, that just took off.”

Two critical pieces of Maxwell’s development arrived in 2020. Gajewski hired former Tulsa coach John Bargfeldt as OSU’s pitching coach, and Virginia Tech star Carrie Eberle transferred to Stillwater. 

Bargfeldt’s knowledge and Eberle’s leadership brought Maxwell’s talent, determination and improvement together. 

“That was her first year working with John and it was a lot of change,” said Eberle, now a graduate assistant coach for the Cowgirls. “I know that is tough, because I went through it early in my career. But she took everything, she absorbed it and was talking through things. 

“She wanted to learn and she wanted to get better and be the best version she could be.”

Making just 11 appearances behind Eberle in the COVID-shortened season, Maxwell had a 1.51 ERA and 57 strikeouts in 46 ⅓ innings. 

Last season, again sharing the circle with Eberle, Maxwell had a 1.81 ERA and took the ball in several more critical games than she had the year before, including the WCWS. 

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But her biggest step forward came last fall. She worked with Bargfeldt to add a third pitch, a changeup, to her arsenal as she primed herself to be the Cowgirls’ ace. 

Even with the addition of three-time All-American Miranda Elish, who transferred from Texas in January, Maxwell believed her spot was at the top of the rotation.

“She always had that calm, cool presence out there,” Eberle said. “But you can see the self-confidence that she has and that little bit of swagger that she’s gained over the years. She leads through example, through her work.”

Quickly mastering her changeup to go with a pair of harder pitches — primarily a rise ball — Maxwell has flourished.

“It’s really cool when you can have as much success as she had last year and walk in and go, ‘Yeah, I gotta keep getting better,’” Gajewski said. “And I know she’ll take that same approach when this season’s done. 

“That’s the value of a kid right here that has a thirst for getting better each day.”

Thursday's WCWS games

At USA Softball Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City. Games on ESPN.

► Game 1: No. 5 seed UCLA (48-8) vs. Texas (43-19), 11 a.m.

► Game 2: No. 1 seed Oklahoma (54-2) vs. No. 9 Northwestern (44-11), 1:30 p.m.

► Game 3: No. 14 seed Florida (48-17) vs. Oregon State (39-20), 6 p.m. 

► Game 4: No. 7 seed Oklahoma State (46-12) vs. Arizona (38-20), 8:30 p.m. 

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