Former OU baseball teammates Kenny Gajewski, Tim Walton face off again in the WCWS

Scott Wright
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Having just wrapped up a victory at the Stillwater Regional two Sundays ago, Oklahoma State softball coach Kenny Gajewski was ecstatic with the win, but lamented one painful part of the day.

“Hate playing against friends,” Gajewski said, referring to North Texas coach Rodney DeLong, whose team was eliminated from the NCAA Tournament with the Cowgirls’ 2-0 win that day. “I’ve had to play my buddy Tim (Walton) a bunch and it’s no fun when one of us has gotta go home.”

So you can be assured that Saturday night brings some discomfort for Gajewski.

His seventh-seeded Cowgirls will face 14th-seeded Florida — coached, of course, by his buddy Tim — in winner’s bracket play at the Women’s College World Series, set for a 6 p.m. first pitch Saturday at USA Softball Hall of Fame Stadium, televised by ESPN. 

Neither team will have to go home after Saturday’s game, but instead will fall to the loser’s bracket. But that won’t lessen the pain of playing a close friend in a game with sky-high stakes.

It seems those are the only circumstances in which the friends of more than three decades ever meet on the field these days. 

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Florida coach Tim Walton and OSU coach Kenny Gajewski laugh during media day at the Women's College World Series in 2019.

Since Oklahoma State hired Gajewski prior to the 2016 season, plucking him from Walton’s Florida staff, they’ve faced each other four times — none by choice. All four meetings have come in NCAA Tournament play.

In 2017, OSU was sent to Gainesville, Florida, for the regional hosted by the top-seeded Gators. Meeting in the winner’s bracket final, Florida took a 2-0 victory, but OSU fought back through the loser’s bracket, and forced an if-necessary game with a 1-0 win over the Gators. 

But Walton’s bunch ultimately won out with a 5-0 victory in the decisive game.

In 2019, the two teams matched up in the first round of the WCWS. Gajewski’s Cowgirls were then 13th seed, but pulled out a 2-1 victory over the fifth-seeded Gators behind two solo home runs from pitcher Samantha Show. 

So Gajewski is 2-2 against his friend, with both wins considered upsets based on seeding.

That piece of the script has been flipped. Gajewski and the Cowgirls are No. 7 this year, with Florida at No. 14. 

“I’m not surprised they’ve had success as coaches,” said former OU baseball coach Larry Cochell, who coached Gajewski and Walton in 1994. “They understand discipline. They understand what it takes to win. I’ve watched them and both of their clubs are very disciplined.”

The winner of Saturday’s game will be one victory shy of locking up a spot in the best-of-three championship series.

Gajewski has never taken the Cowgirls that far, having gone 1-2 in both WCWS appearances. 

But he knows what it’s like. He was with Walton when the Gators won back-to-back titles in 2014-15. 

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OU baseball players lift up their coach, Larry Cochell, after winning the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska, on June 11, 1994.

That 2015 squad was their last time on the same team — 25 years after they first became teammates, and instant friends.

They met in the fall of 1990 when Walton was an incoming freshman on the baseball team at Cerritos College in Norwalk, California. Gajewski was a redshirt freshman at the time and they spent just one season together before Gajewski transferred to Cal State Dominguez Hills for the next two seasons. 

Walton was so impacted by his friendship with Gajewski that for the 1992 season, Walton changed jersey numbers to the No. 40 Gajewski had worn. 

From there, the paths of Walton and Gajewski would regularly intertwine.

They first reunited on the OU baseball team in 1994, winning a national championship together. 

“They were easy guys to coach,” Cochell said. “They took instruction well. They were very hard workers, because they weren’t the stars of the team. They were really good players and really good team players.

“When they didn’t play, they were always really involved in the game. That’s why they became good coaches, because they learned when they were not playing, they watched, listened and learned.

“A lot of kids that aren’t playing, they’re not really tuned in to the game. Those guys were always involved. If you ask them what the count was, they could tell you. Other guys on the bench, they wouldn’t know how many outs there were.”

In 1997, Gajewski became the turf and maintenance director for Patty Gasso’s Sooner softball team, and Gasso hired Walton as an assistant two years later. 

Walton left OU after the 2002 season, and the two went a decade without working together. But it was in 2012 when a phone call from Walton to Gajewski brought the band back together.

Walton — at the time, having just completed his sixth season as Florida’s head coach — needed an assistant. Gajewski had only recently gotten back into college athletics, spending the previous two years as the director of baseball operations at Tennessee. 

He had never coached softball, but Walton knew his friend could bring value to the program, so he offered him the job. 

They were together for three years and two national championships before OSU lured Gajewski to Stillwater. 

“I learned most everything I know about this game from him,” Gajewski said of Walton before their first game against each other in 2017. “We’ve brought a lot of that here.”

Now it’s time for another meeting on college softball’s biggest stage, and after that, if they’re going to square off again in this WCWS, it can only be in the championship series. 

But no matter the stakes, no matter the intensity, the friendship forged at Cerritos College will endure. 

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