'It feels crazy': Maxwell, Cowgirls blank Oregon for fourth consecutive trip to WCWS
May 26—Kelly Maxwell fired one more pitch to home plate, heard it leave the bat of Oregon's KK Humphreys and watched it soar through the sky toward right field at Cowgirl Stadium on Friday night.
Before she knew it, Taylor Tuck — Oklahoma State softball's catcher and Maxwell's battery mate of three years — had converged on her with open arms.
The two had just watched right fielder Katelynn Carwile reel in a game-ending pop fly, an out that put the punctuation on Maxwell's prolific outing, one that fueled the Cowgirls to a 9-0 win over the Ducks and a fourth consecutive trip to Women's College World Series.
"It feels crazy," OSU coach Kenny Gajewski said. "The season brings peaks and valleys and potholes, and we've been in all of it. We've been muddied up. It feels pretty good to be going to No. 4."
Maxwell, a finalist for USA Softball Player of the Year, was everything the Cowgirls (46-14) needed from their ace — and then some. She blanked the Ducks, marking only the fifth time that's happened this season, and did so while only allowing two hits.
The redshirt senior had a perfect game in her college debut back in 2020. And she was two outs away from notching another, which would've been the eighth in program history, before Allee Bunker knocked a single in the bottom of the seventh and became the first Duck to find a base.
Oh, and Maxwell did all of that while battling a week-long illness, a bug that had her dry heaving throughout one of her best performances of the season.
"I just wanted to go out there and pound the zone, let my defense work behind me," said Maxwell, who fanned eight of the 23 batters she faced on 99 pitches (73 strikes). "I felt it early on. I knew my stuff was good today."
"I could tell in the first that Kelly's stuff was good. I didn't know it was gonna be that good," Gajewski said. "But it was incredible."
Between Maxwell and Lexi Kilfoyl, who started against the Ducks (38-17) in Game 1 of the Stillwater Super Regional, the Cowgirls' defense retired 36 Oregon batters in a row.
Kilfoyl allowed a run in the second inning on Thursday and finished the game by sitting down the final 17. Maxwell continued that streak until Bunker's base hit.
"I found myself a couple times going through my book and going, 'Damn,'" Gajewski said. "It was wild. And (Oregon) is a good offensive team. To do that was just really cool."
A large part of feeling comfortable in the circle, Maxwell said, was having an early lead. OSU, which batted first as the contest's away team, wasted little time striking first.
Second baseman Rachel Becker opened the game with a leadoff double, tying the program's record for most in a season (22). Center fielder Chyenne Factor advanced Becker with a sacrifice bunt, and shortstop Kiley Naomi brought her home with an RBI single.
Naomi wasn't done yet, though. That was only the beginning.
Amid another middle-inning scoring spree from the Cowgirls, who've made that a pattern throughout this postseason run, Naomi cranked her 13th home run of the season over the wall in left-center. It was a three-run shot as part of a six-run fifth inning from OSU.
After hitting that one and another the night before, Naomi is tied with Sydney Pennington (47) for the most home runs in program history.
"I didn't even know that until just now," said Naomi, who was unbeknownst of her latest accolade after finishing 4 for 4 with four RBIs and a pair of doubles. "I think it's just not even thinking about that stuff, just going up there, putting good swings on good pitches and letting the results happen."
The Cowgirls' fifth-straight win has turned the tide from where they stood two weeks prior to punching their ticket to Oklahoma City. A loss to Kansas in the first round of the Big 12 tournament had OSU riding in the postseason having lost 11 of 13.
Since then, the Pokes have outscored their opponents 37-3. And now, they're headed back where they've always wanted to be, where they've expected to be since February.
"I didn't have any doubt, to be honest. I've never had any doubt. Even during that streak, I didn't have doubt," Gajewski said. "We were playing not to lose instead of playing like we've played the last two weekends, which is just attack and suffocate."
Almost an hour had passed since the momentous embrace between Maxwell and Tuck. The Cowgirls spent that time taking pictures with the OSU fans who packed the venue's seating, including an extra set of bleachers placed beyond right field.
They celebrated with each other. They celebrated with their families. They celebrated with just about anyone donning bright orange.
Then Gajewski gathered everyone around and told them they'd deservedly have the next couple of days off. But there's still business to take care of, he said, and the Cowgirls' latest trip south is just another business trip.
"We're trying to win the last game. I mean, that's it," Gajewski said. "We talk about that a lot. We don't have a lot of goals, we don't set a lot of goals. We just talk about winning the last game."
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