Even in the madness and chaos of a Super Regional “if” game, Mackenzie Thomas remained calm.
With Oklahoma State leading defending national champion Florida State by two runs entering the bottom of the seventh inning, the Claremore product was a mere three outs away from realizing her childhood dream of playing in the Women’s College World Series.
Crouched behind home plate, the junior knew she had one of the best vantage points for the Cowgirls’ impending victory. They just had to take it one out at a time.
The first out is always one of the toughest to come by, though, especially in season-defining moments.
Florida State’s Anna Shelnutt proved as much.
In the first at-bat of the frame, Shelnutt blasted the ninth pitch of the count over the left-center wall, trimming the Seminoles’ deficit to 3-2 with no outs.
However, Thomas wasn’t fazed by the temporary letdown. Neither was pitcher Logan Simunek.
If anything, the homer further solidified Thomas’ confidence.
“I knew we needed to get that first out in order to move forward with the process of getting three outs and moving on to the next step,” Thomas said. “Logan was really grinding out that pitch count. I knew once she gave up that home run, we wouldn’t have any trouble getting the next three outs.”
Simunek went on to strike out the next batter before capping the win off with two groundouts.
It was an exciting and humbling moment for Thomas, who is in her third season with the Cowgirls.
She transferred to OSU from McNeese State during coach Kenny Gajewski’s second season.
Gajewski was brought to Stillwater with the purpose of revitalizing and rebuilding the program’s culture, and Thomas has gotten to experience the change firsthand.
The Cowgirls went from 10 games below .500 to six games above during Gajewski’s first season in 2016. Fast forward three years, and they now sport a 44-15 record and stand as one of the sport’s elite teams.
“Our goal the entire fall was to be one of the final eight teams,” Thomas said. “The program has taken a big leap over the past four years, and it was our goal to get us back on the map and be the standard of softball.
“We just wanted to set our goal high and work really hard to get there, and we did that.”
Once Madi Sue Montgomery’s short throw reached Samantha Show at first base for the final out, the celebration was on, and Thomas was right in the middle of the festivities.
“I was over there as fast I could, hugging all my teammates,” Thomas said. “We accomplished our team goal together. Our team motto is ‘For the Girls’, so in that moment, it was all about doing it for the girls.”
No. 13 OSU plays No. 5 Florida (49-16) in the first game of the second session today at 6 p.m.
Thomas was a freshman when the Gators eliminated the Cowgirls from the 2017 postseason in the Gainesville Regional, and she hasn’t forgotten.
OSU defeated Florida, 1-0, in Game 1 of the regional championship, but the Gators won the “if” game, 5-0, and went on to finish as runner-up in the Women’s College World Series, losing to Oklahoma.
In addition to Thomas, only Montgomery, Simunek, Taylor Lynch and Rylee Bayless remain from that year’s squad, and they are eager to avenge those losses.
“There’s only a handful of us left who played against them, but it’s cool to know we get our redemption and get another shot at them,” Thomas said.
MYSTIQUE OF HALL OF FAME STADIUM
Thomas is no stranger to OGE Energy Field at USA Softball Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City.
In fact, she’s played numerous games at the renowned complex, mostly through summer league tournaments when she was in high school.
Those occasions pale in comparison to the Women’s College World Series, though.
Thomas never qualified for a state tournament during her time with the Lady Zebras, so this championship experience will be her first.
The reality of playing for a national audience in front of more than 7,000 screaming fans on the sport’s biggest stage is only just now hitting the junior.
“I don’t think any moment can prepare you for whenever you step on the field for the first time,” Thomas said. “It’s something you worked for as a kid, so playing there in high school, I don’t think there’s any advantages or disadvantages.”
BECOMING A COWGIRL
Thomas wasn’t always an OSU Cowgirl.
The former Zebra initially signed with McNeese State in Lake Charles, La., during the winter following her high school senior season in 2015.
However, a coaching change prior to her arrival soured her opinion of the Louisiana school, which also calls itself the Cowgirls in female athletics.
Even Thomas’ father, Brett, noticed a change in her overall demeanor and enthusiasm toward softball.
“We could sense it in her,” Brett Thomas said. “She wasn’t liking softball and school. She wanted to come home, so we told her to finish out the semester, and we’d look into it.”
After returning to Claremore, the offers came rolling in.
Northeastern Oklahoma A&M pursued the former All-Stater, and Mercer — a Division I school in Georgia — offered her a full-ride scholarship.
Just when it appeared Mackenzie Thomas was heading even further east, her summer league coach, Krystel Markwardt, discovered a missing piece on OSU’s roster.
Gajewski needed a catcher. That just so happened to be Mackenzie Thomas’ specialty.
She suddenly had an opportunity to be only 90 minutes from home rather than nine hours.
Coincidentally, OSU opened the 2017 season with a pair of wins (5-1, 6-5) over McNeese State in the LSU Tiger Classic Tournament in Baton Rouge, La. Given her short stint with the team at the time, Mackenzie Thomas didn’t play.
“(Coach Markwardt) reached out to Coach G (Gajewski), we met up and I knew the moment I stepped on campus this was the place for me,” Mackenzie Thomas said. “I could tell the culture of this place was changing, and it wasn’t where it wanted to be yet, but they were taking steps to do what they wanted to do and get where they wanted to go.
“The journey to get here was long, but it’s been absolutely worth it.”
She’s made the most of her opportunity.
Mackenzie Thomas has a limited number of at-bats, appearing at the plate 155 times in her three years and only 19 this season, but her fielding stats are what turn heads.
She is experiencing her best season thus far with the Cowgirls, notching a .994 fielding percentage in 40 games of action. She’s also tallied 146 putouts and 12 assists while committing only one error.
Furthermore, Mackenzie Thomas has successfully caught eight base runners in 16 attempted steals.
“I’d say the biggest role for me is bringing a good energy and a good vibe to the field,” Mackenzie Thomas said.
Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part series evaluating Claremore alum Mackenzie Thomas’ journey with Oklahoma State softball to the Women’s College World Series. Part 2 will be released in Friday’s edition.