‘Like video game stuff’: How calm, collected Maxwell has blossomed into Cowgirls’ record-setting ace

May 5—Kelly Maxwell maintains a placid demeanor as she steps out of the circle.

Maybe she struck out someone to end the inning, but she isn’t pumping her fist. She isn’t fervently hollering or drawing attention to herself with an animated facial expression. Maxwell, the Oklahoma State softball team’s redshirt junior ace pitcher, masks her emotions when she starts for the Cowgirls.

Although she’s perfected the poker face, coach Kenny Gajewski knows her well enough to see the intense spirit that fuels her. Maxwell’s cool head is spiked with a competitive edge.

“She may not act like it out loud, but she’s probably the most competitive person on this team, in a weird way,” Gajewski said. “And I don’t have an answer to explain that. Her competitiveness is, just because it’s quiet, don’t be mistaken (about) who she is and what she’s trying to do.”

With this combination of composure and grittiness, Maxwell (15-2) has broken out as one of the top players in college softball. On Wednesday, USA Softball announced the 10 finalists for Collegiate Player of the Year, and Maxwell is on the list. In April, she set OSU’s seven-inning record of 18 strikeouts, securing a 6-0 shutout of Kansas. Her ERA of 1.04 ranks ninth among all Division I pitchers.

Maxwell’s mix of pitches has stumped numerous highlevel batters, but before she blossomed into the Cowgirls’ silent trickster in the circle, she used her calm competitiveness to overcome a different opponent: herself.

Maxwell openly acknowledged the difficulties of her first year as a Cowgirl. In 2019, she redshirted, and Gajewski had doubts about her future at OSU. In their end-of-season meeting at Cowgirl Stadium, Gajewski shared tough but honest feedback.

“I can remember having a talk with her in this office right over here, saying ‘Hey, I’m not so sure it’s gonna work here,’” Gajewski said. “’You’re gonna have to get better.’ That was a real thought, and I think she’ll verify that talk.”

She did. Gajewski’s candid message resonated with her, motivating her to leave behind the Kelly Maxwell who couldn’t throw a strikeout.

“I think that kind of is what stemmed everything in my success so far,” Maxwell said. “I went home that summer, and I just worked my butt off.”

In her hometown of Friendswood, Texas, Maxwell revamped her approach. She worked with a pitching coach, and her evolution continued when she returned to Stillwater, where assistant coach John Bargfeldt offered guidance.

Bargfeldt helped her gain command of her rise ball. They also refined her changeup. Positive results surfaced: she recorded a 1.51 ERA during the curtailed 2020 season and then joined forces with Carrie Eberle to lead the Cowgirls to the Women’s College World Series as a redshirt sophomore.

As Maxwell improved, she continued to fine-tune her mechanics, completing her metamorphosis from floundering newcomer to surefire ace of the 2022 pitching staff.

“Her numbers are absurd,” Gajewski said. “They’re like video game stuff. She’s pitched against the best teams. She’s had very few days off. … We’ve had times where we’re like, ‘Man, this would be nice to have a game for Kel where it’s not so stressful,’ but she just goes out there against everyone and dominates.”

Maxwell’s job becomes increasingly demanding as the No. 7 Cowgirls reach the end of their regular-season schedule. OSU begins a three-game series against No. 1 OU at 7 p.m. Thursday in Norman.

On USA Softball’s top-10 list, Maxwell is in the company of several Sooners: infielder Grace Lyons, power hitter Jocelyn Alo and freshman ace Jordy Bahl. They stand between OSU and a regular-season Big 12 Conference title, but Maxwell remains unruffled as the pressure escalates.

“I’m just treating it like any other game,” Maxwell said. “I don’t really care who we play.”

Maxwell’s consistency is especially valuable to the Cowgirls as a question mark surrounds fellow pitcher Miranda Elish’s status heading into the Bedlam series. Gajewski said Elish is dealing with “a pretty significant injury to a tendon” in her bicep and couldn’t confirm if she will appear in the circle against the Sooners.

While Elish and Morgan Day have embraced their identities as demonstrative pitchers — their faces often show whether the Cowgirls are winning or losing — Gajewski recognized Maxwell is different.

“Kelly’s just Kelly,” Gajewski said. “She’s Steady Eddie.”

In her own way, Maxwell lets herself have fun. After Maxwell set her record of 18 punchouts, the chants from fans and teammates were louder than anything she was saying, but her oftenserious expression changed. A big grin spread across Maxwell’s face as she jogged toward the spectators waiting to congratulate her in the outfield.

Her celebrations are subtle but authentic.

“From such a young age, I’ve just always been very calm and mellow,” Maxwell said. “And that’s just the way I am.”

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