OU Softball: How Oklahoma's Kelly Maxwell Went from Good to Great to Elite to National Champion

The Sooners' ace left-hander "went through a lot" after transferring from Oklahoma State, but simply got better every time she pitched in the WCWS.
Oklahoma pitcher Kelly Maxwell
Oklahoma pitcher Kelly Maxwell / BRYAN TERRY/THE OKLAHOMAN / USA TODAY

OKLAHOMA CITY — From her old coach telling everyone she would not be welcome in Stillwater to her former fans’ relentless vitriol on social media, Kelly Maxwell probably wanted to say so many things.

Instead, she stayed on the high road and always let her pitching do the talking.

And today, Maxwell woke up a national champion, a Sooner legend, a pitching workhorse, winner of one game in the championship series of the Women’s College World Series, and saver of another, and ultimately Most Outstanding Player of the 2024 WCWS.

“It's been awesome,” Maxwell said Thursday night after the Sooners dispatched Texas 8-4 in the clincher. “This whole team, they're special. I'm just thankful that I got to be a part of this. We've been through a lot this year.”

Maxwell was a star at Oklahoma State, a softball savant who, with the guidance of coach Kenny Gajewski and her OSU teammates, forged the Cowgirl program to sustained excellence.

But Maxwell wanted more. She wanted a national championship. So she stepped across Bedlam lines and transferred to OU.

Mission accomplished — but not without significant consternation.

Last August, for instance, Gajewski said at an OSU fan function, “As long as I’m here, it’ll be hard for her to come back here.”

As might be expected with any good collegiate rivalry, she was also the target of constant ridicule on social media.

“I received a lot of hate, a lot of doubt,” Maxwell said. “But I'm just thankful for these girls and this team and this staff, just to pick me up and have my back. Everything that I've been through, to have God right by my side working in my life. I'm grateful that I'm here.”

OU coach Patty Gasso hinted repeatedly this week at Devon Park that Maxwell has “been through so much,” and that the whole situation has been weighing on her. Something was off, Gasso said, and she felt for Maxwell on a personal level.

But then, before an elimination game against Florida, Maxwell “flipped a switch,” Gasso said, and she began to pitch freely, her mind perhaps unencumbered by the hate, untainted by the toxicity.

The fact that Oklahoma State was also in the WCWS bracket may have played a part early. What would that have looked like, to transfer to OU to win a national title, only to potentially meet the Cowgirls in the championship series with everything on the line?

Maybe it was mere coincidence, but Maxwell’s game seemed to elevate after OSU was eliminated with two quick losses in OKC.

The most difficult thing about it all, she said, was not what you might expect.

“I think just through hard work, staying true to myself,” Maxwell said. “Just kind of keeping my head down. Even though, like, you don't want to see it, you still see it, it still kind of gets to you. 

“Not being able to, you know, say something back — just being able to go to work every day. I don't know, just have fun, to be honest.”

Maxwell threw 130 pitches to beat Florida and get to the champ series, then threw 119 pitches and went the distance as OU beat the Longhorns 8-5 on Wednesday night.

On Thursday night, she came back in relief — the Sooners’ fifth and final pitcher — and worked the last 1 1/3 innings to collect her third save of the season. 

How good was she in relief? She only needed 14 pitches, and 12 of those were strikes.

And, it turns out, Maxwell was the alert mastermind of the Sooners’ biggest defensive play, getting second baseman Avery Hodge to quickly forget her fielding miscue and turn and flip to first base to get Texas’ Mia Scott with a crucial out.

“It was huge,” Maxwell said. “I mean, they definitely had the momentum in that moment. So, just being able to try to stop it. I saw Mia Scott kind of come off the bag. I was just telling Avery ‘Turn around, turn around, let's get her, c'mon.’ She finally heard me. We got it done. It was pretty cool to see, to be able to get out of that.”

After Maxwell beat Texas on Wednesday, catcher Kinzie Hansen offered her insights on Maxwell’s journey this season.

“Kelly has always been a phenomenal pitcher,” Hansen said, “but I feel like she's taken it to the next level just in her mental state of mind.” 

Gasso said then that Maxwell had been “pushing herself internally to places I don't think she's ever been before. It's beautiful to see really.”

As OU went 59-7 this season, Maxwell finished a team-best 23-2 in the circle with a 1.94 earned run average. She led the Sooners with 164 strikeouts and 155 1/3 innings pitched (almost twice as many as any of her teammates), but also led the team with 64 walks (nearly three times as many as anyone else). Her skill, power and guile were always front and center, but control and location were occasionally off. 

Even in the WCWS opener against Duke, Maxwell went 3 2/3 innings with four strikeouts and four walks.

It was after that game that Gasso had a conversation with Maxwell that Maxwell described as “eye-opening.”

“The conversation was really faith-based — ‘Just hand it over to the Lord and let Him guide you, just be free,’ ” Gasso said as she began to get emotional. “She has not pitched free. That's what's been going on. So to see her do that today (against UCLA), something I'll never forget.”

Maxwell beat UCLA 1-0 that day to get to the semifinals, and ahead of two games with Florida, Gasso began to reveal just a little more of where Maxwell had been — and maybe where she would be going.

“There's some things stirring in her internally that's just hard to explain,” Gasso said. “Just feels at peace about what's going on. She's not chasing. She's not feeling nervous. She's got a peace with her team about what she's doing, how she's doing it.

“She has been going through a lot. She's been through a lot. This (UCLA) was a big game for her. It was really getting it off of her. It's been hanging on her since she got here. It's been hard to watch her not be able to break through.

“There's so many negatives coming. It just is. It's everywhere.”

Thursday night, after the Sooners locked up their fourth consecutive national championship, the conversation returned to Maxwell’s faith.

“Like (Rylie) Boone said, God was here. He's present,” Maxwell said. “I can feel that. I know wherever we go after this, we'll be taken care of.”

Gasso nearly teared up again  Thursday talking about the Sooners’ ace. After Maxwell and her teammates left the postgame press conference, the Sooners’ legendary head coach revealed a little more about her star left hander.

“I can tell you that Kelly this season — but this post-season, especially the World Series — Kelly will be changed forever. That is the greatest gift she could give us. Not the championship, but watching this young lady break out of her shell and smile and laugh and just enjoy being a good pitcher with good players who really appreciate and respect her.

“It's not anything to do about anything else except what I know happened here. I watched it, experienced it. It was amazing. Amazing.”


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John E. Hoover

JOHN E. HOOVER

John is an award-winning journalist whose work spans five decades in Oklahoma, with multiple state, regional and national awards as a sportswriter at various newspapers. During his newspaper career, John covered the Dallas Cowboys, the Kansas City Chiefs, the Oklahoma Sooners, the Oklahoma State Cowboys, the Arkansas Razorbacks and much more. In 2016, John changed careers, migrating into radio and launching a YouTube channel, and has built a successful independent media company, DanCam Media. From there, John has written under the banners of Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, Fan Nation and a handful of local and national magazines while hosting daily sports talk radio shows in Oklahoma City, Tulsa and statewide. John has also spoken on Capitol Hill in Oklahoma City in a successful effort to put more certified athletic trainers in Oklahoma public high schools. Among the dozens of awards he has won, John most cherishes his national "Beat Writer of the Year" from the Associated Press Sports Editors, Oklahoma's "Best Sports Column" from the Society of Professional Journalists, and Two "Excellence in Sports Medicine Reporting" Awards from the National Athletic Trainers Association. John holds a bachelor's degree in Mass Communications from East Central University in Ada, OK. Born and raised in North Pole, Alaska, John played football and wrote for the school paper at Ada High School in Ada, OK. He enjoys books, movies and travel, and lives in Broken Arrow, OK, with his wife and two kids.