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On the rocks: OSU softball learning to be a team again

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(Back row from right to left) Logan Simunek, Carrie Eberle, Chyenne Factor, Raquel Dominguez, (bottom row) Mady Lohman and Madison Neighbors before the No.14 Oklahoma State vs. Missouri State softball game on March 8, 2020 at Cowgirl Stadium in Stillwater, Oklahoma

Kenny Gajewski mistakenly thought the Oklahoma State softball team could pick up right where it left off.

It had just extended its winning streak to 12 after a win over Wichita State on March 11, 2020. That was the last day everything felt normal.

The worst pandemic in a century forced the players to split up and take the longest break from the sport in their lives. Their collective morale fell faster than a perfectly thrown drop ball.

When they were finally reunited, Gajewski, the OSU coach, expected spirits to rise as fast as they fell.

“I thought, in my brain, that we would just pick right up from last year’s team. But then it was like, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re a mess’,” Gajewski said. “I was seeing looks in girls’ eyes that I hadn’t seen, and as a coach, it hurts, it’s painful.”

Gajewski identified the problem early and immediately worked to address it. But there was only so much he could do.

He soon learned that no number of pep talks could fix it, for only one thing can — competition.

“They just want to get back on the field against someone else. They’re tired of practice, tired of intersquads and kind of tired of each other to be honest,” Gajewski said. “I wish I had a magic potion I could sprinkle on them and say it’s time to be a close-knit team. None of our teams have been in a perfect place. It evolves.”

The biggest obstacle the players have to navigate around is the changes in their relationships with each other. Much time had passed and the people who left Stillwater in the early spring weren’t the exact same who returned.

“Everyone was doing their own thing for months on end,” outfielder Chyenne Factor said. “It’s hard to keep a bond when you’re not around people. It’s coming back and we’ll get there.”

Time slightly fractured these relationships, but Gajewski said it will make them whole again too.

“There is no greater thing,” Gajewski said. “We’re not void of problems. The one thing we’re going to do is take them head on.”

sports.ed@ocolly.com