STILLWATER — With two outs in the top of the sixth inning of a tense scoreless game, Oklahoma State’s Miranda Elish had fallen behind in the count, but battled back to force it full.
At that point, clapping from fans throughout Cowgirl Stadium slowly began to build, as if they sensed they were on the edge of a big moment.
“I heard it,” Elish said. “I tried not to let it get me too high or anything. I was just trying to stay focused and hit the ball hard and hope that something comes from it.”
The clapping immediately exploded into a roar when Elish ripped the next pitch over the right field wall for a solo home run.
The seventh-seeded Cowgirls (44-12) added an insurance run in the top of the seventh and held on for a 2-0 win over North Texas (37-16) Sunday to claim the Stillwater Regional championship and secure their spot in the Super Regional round.
The Cowgirls will host 10th-seeded Clemson next weekend, with game times and dates to be announced by the NCAA.
Elish’s home run was her seventh of the season, but her first since April 24 — the same day she injured a biceps tendon in her right arm in a win over Texas. She hasn’t been able to pitch since that day, but after missing one game, returned to the batting order as the designated player.
“That was a monster hit,” OSU coach Kenny Gajewski said of Elish’s home run. “It’s one that’ll go down in the history books of just clutch and that’s what she’s been here all year long.”
While OSU’s offense was slow to produce a run, the pitching was stellar from junior left-hander Kelly Maxwell, who allowed only two hits — one on a soft popup to second base that was misplayed by Karli Petty when she lost it in the sun — with no walks and 15 strikeouts.
Maxwell, who finished the season with the most strikeouts in the Big 12, now has 263 for the year in 160 ⅓ innings pitched. She came into the game ranked fifth nationally in strikeouts per seven innings pitched at 11.3, a number which increased after Sunday’s performance.
It was Maxwell’s 10th complete-game shutout of the season as she improved her record to 18-4, one of those wins coming over North Texas in mid-March.
“The first time I faced them, I struggled,” Maxwell said. “They hit my rise ball pretty good. They knew what they were looking for. So being able to throw my changeup today so effectively, I was able to offset them as hitters.”
Maxwell added the changeup to her list of pitches last fall and has seen her effectiveness rise because of it.
“I think it’s taken me to a whole other level,” she said. “In the past, I only had two pitches, and really only one. So being able to have that and being able to change speeds against tough hitters, it makes my job a lot easier.”
Petty helped produce the Cowgirls’ insurance run in the top of the seventh, leading off the inning with her second double of the day. Pinch-runner Brianna Evans then scored from second on a fielding error when pinch-hitter Morgyn Wynne hit a hard grounder to shortstop that couldn’t be handled.
None of those three players — Petty, Evans and Wynne — have been getting regular starts over the past three weeks, but all came through in key situations on Sunday, a sign of the importance of OSU’s depth and the value it brings this time of year.
“For somebody like Bri, it sucks right now,” Gajewski said of Evans, a freshman who was the team’s starting second baseman and leadoff hitter much of the year before her offense and defense began to struggle in recent weeks. “She’s the greatest teammate here. I’m proud of her. I’m proud of Morgyn Wynne having a good at-bat there.
“I’ve been telling them this before each game: it’s gonna take all of us to win every day.”
NCAA softball super regionals
Matchups (dates and times TBD):
► No. 1 Oklahoma (52-2) vs. No. 16 Central Florida (49-12)
► No. 8 Arizona State (41-9) vs. No. 9 Northwestern (43-10)
► No. 5 UCLA (46-8) vs. No. 12 Duke (44-9)
► No. 4 Arkansas (47-9) vs. Washington/Texas winner
► No. 3 Virginia Tech (45-8) vs. No. 14 Florida (46-16)
► Stanford (39-20) vs. Oregon State (37-20)
► No. 7 Oklahoma State (44-12) vs. No. 10 Clemson (42-15)
► Arizona (36-20) vs. Mississippi State (37-25)
This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Oklahoma State softball beats North Texas to reach NCAA Super Regional