Rylee Bayless started running to her left toward foul territory down the right field line.
As Bayless, a redshirt senior outfielder on the Oklahoma State softball team, tracked a fly ball off the bat of Wichita State’s Wylie Glover, she never checked to find the 4-foot high fence she was quickly approaching.
At the same time the ball touched her glove, she slammed into the wall, falling backward. The ball ended up falling harmlessly to the turf on the other side of the fence.
Kenny Gajewski, OSU’s coach, said though she didn’t make the catch, the play exemplifies the way he wants his players to play.
“It’s a fun play, it will be fun to show, even though she didn’t finish it off,” Gajewski said. “She has no fear, and that’s what we’ve gotta have.”
Gajewski said he has been impressed with Bayless’ play in center and right field the season. Bayless is still learning the outfield positions after transitioning from third base.
Learning the outfield positions is an added challenge for Bayless, who is returning after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee five games into the 2018 season.
The injury occurred during a collision with a teammate in left field during practice. Bayless said she felt a pop in her knee. An MRI discovered the pop was a tear, one that kept Bayless out of what was supposed to be her senior season. She said at the time she was worried she had played her last game of college softball, but the NCAA granted her a medical redshirt to compete this season.
Bayless said though the injury and surgery were painful, after the first couple of weeks of rehab she knew she would be able to recover.
“After the first two weeks it was challenging but nothing I couldn’t handle,” Bayless said.
Bayless said she feels she is at 100 percent and attributes the success of her recovery to the work of OSU’s training staff.
“I feel strong,” Bayless said. “Claire [Williams, OSU’s trainer] did an amazing job, Wes [Ulm, strength coach] did an amazing job.”
Ask anyone involved with OSU’s softball program about Bayless and he or she will say Bayless is a competitor with a personality that fits her role on the team to perfection. In every year of her college career she has served as her teams’ leadoff hitter. Taylor Lynch, an OSU senior designated player, said Bayless’ constant energy level and encouragement helps to get her teammates pumped up. Lynch said Bayless’ attitude fits Bayless’ role perfectly. Lynch is playing through an ACL injury of her own.
“She’s obviously a little fireball when she’s playing, she’s very emotional,” Lynch said. “We thrive off of that, especially the kids who aren’t as emotional when they play. It’s nice to have someone like that because it kinds of gets us going and gets the dugout pumped. When she’s up to bat it kinda feels like all of us are up there with her.”
Bayless said she attributes her intensity in part to wanting to play each game as if it is her last.
“You never know when it’s going to be,” Bayless said.
Bayless said she credits her junior college coach, Northeastern Oklahoma’s Eric Iverson, with helping her grow as much as a person as she has as a player.
“Being away from my parents, I had to learn what was right and wrong and how to adapt on my own,” Bayless said. “Coach Ivy was a huge part of that. He’s a very brutally honest guy, and I’ve learned to respect that because that’s what you want people to be.”
For Bayless, NEO’s location in Miami, with a population of 13,212, forced her to focus on softball and her studies.
“The town was so small, there was really nothing else to do but go to the batting cages and so that’s what I did; I worked hard,” Bayless said. “Going to JUCO really proved to me that hard work does pay off.”
Iverson said Bayless’ passion for the game was apparent during her time in junior college.
“We always tried to just enhance that passion and never stifle it because it’s such an important quality in our game,” Iverson said. “Her personality is infectious; it’s perfect for the game.”
While playing for Iverson at NEO, Bayless won NJCAA Player of the Year in 2015 and 2016, but Iverson said getting her to focus on her studies is as important as her accomplishments on the field, something he stresses to all of his players.
“We don’t sit here and coddle them, we try to prepare them for how the real world is going to treat them and the professional setting as far as what they choose to do with their lives,” Iverson said.
Bayless said when she arrived at NEO she was focused on playing softball, an approach that Iverson altered.
“I wasn’t very school-oriented, I just wanted to play softball, and coach Ivy helped me understand the importance of school and life and why it is important,” Bayless said.
Iverson and Gajewski don’t use study halls, instead placing the responsibility on their players to manage their time efficiently around the teams’ practice and travel schedules. Ulm said Gajewski makes sure his players know the importance of school to succeeding after their softball career.
“Our girls do really well in school, they know how important school is to this program,” Ulm said. “Coach G. set that precedent since day one, so it makes things a little bit easier for us.”
Bayless went from missing classes to graduating from OSU with a bachelor’s degree in university studies in May. With her extra year in college, she is pursuing a graduate degree with an emphasis in leisure studies.
After Bayless graduated from NEO after her sophomore year, Gajewski reached out to her and Iverson, inviting her for an on-campus visit. Bayless said the campus, along with the approach Gajewski’s coaching staff uses, drew her to the program.
“Stillwater just seemed like home to me,” Bayless said. “There’s this really cool underdog feeling in Stillwater that I wanted to be a part of.”
Bayless is embracing her second chance to lead this team to the Women’s College World Series, and said the year off from playing afforded her more time to grow as a player.
“I felt like I learned a lot just from sitting out,” Bayless said. “Mentally I feel like I’m so much stronger, I’ve come so far with my mentality, and I think that that comes from sitting out a year, to be honest, and growing up more.”