Bracket 2 of the Women’s College World Series is a reunion of old pals and teammates, mentors and pupils, and even rivals.
Florida coach Tim Walton and Oklahoma State coach Kenny Gajewski both played baseball at the University of Oklahoma under Larry Cochell. Both also learned softball under Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso — Walton as an OU assistant, Gajewski as the Sooners’ head groundskeeper. And Gasso’s WCWS history with Alabama coach Patrick Murphy is a rivalry built on excellence.
No. 1 seed OU (54-3) and No. 8 ‘Bama (57-8) meet in Thursday night’s late game (8:30 is the target), and No. 5 Florida (49-16) and No. 13 OSU (44-15) square off at 6 p.m. at USA Softball Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City. Arizona-Washington and UCLA-Minnesota are in Bracket 1.
Gajewski was an award-winning turf master at OU for 10 years, but he has elevated the Cowgirls to their first WCWS appearance since 2011. His best pal Walton is proud to bear witness.
“Kenny and I, I was in his wedding, lived at his house,” Walton said during a press conference on Wednesday. “… Our kids (are only) three days separated in birth and have been best buddies growing up.
“I probably got the job at Oklahoma in large part because of him and Patty’s trust in him. So, it’s very, very cool to be sitting up here.”
After Gajewski had branched out from OU and started his own grass business, Walton hired Gajewski as a Gators assistant and they won two national championships together. Soon, though, OSU athletic director Mike Holder was calling Walton about the Cowgirls’ open post.
“We had a long conversation about Kenny,” Walton said. “I told him he would be lucky to have Kenny to revamp the program, get the program back into the winning ways they’re used to.”
Walton and Gajewski grew up in California and became friends and teammates at Cerritos Junior College. They ended up at OU and in 1994 won the national championship under Cochell.
“Kenny and I have been friends for a long, long time,” Walton said. “He taught me most everything I thought I knew about the game of baseball when I was a young freshman, 17 years old on campus. He was a redshirt freshman at junior college. The experience I gained at that school shaped me to not only being a better baseball player and baseball person, but the people we had on our group, on our staff, were really, really incredible. Just a lot of the guys in that program really took me under their wings, taught me not only to play the game (but) how to act, cheer, pick pitches, pick signs, learn how to bunt, hit-and-run, things I never knew existed in the game of baseball.”
Said Gajewski, “I just learned so much from Tim, just the everyday grind. I know where he learned that. He learned a lot of from our junior college days (but) from coach Gasso as well, the way she runs her program. I’ve been lucky. That’s the bottom line. I’m lucky to be around people like this.”
Walton said he tried several times to hire his buddy in Gainesville before Gajewski finally said yes, and it wasn’t just because they were friends.
“I think it was really cool,” Walton said, “to see the passion that Kenny has always had for life, for groundskeeping, for softball, all that stuff.
“I mean, (Gasso) saw the level of detail that Kenny put into our field. I don’t think anybody had ever put that kind of detail into the University of Oklahoma softball facility. The sod, the dirt, getting it exactly the way she wanted it, manicured and groomed. I think she would agree he was pretty funny, loosened up the dugout a little bit. He did talk some trash.”
That both Walton and Gajewski essentially got their start in the game under Gasso — and helped her build an empire at OU — isn’t lost on anyone.
“She was kind enough to take me along on some trips,” Gajewski said. “Treated me like family. I learned a lot from her.”
“I’ll admit it,” Gasso said, “I have known these guys, all of these guys, for over 20 years. To see where they started and where they are now really doesn’t have a lot to do with me. It’s more them. They have an absolute desire to want to learn. They’ve always been that way. Kenny and I just kind of talked about the World Series, things that might help him. To watch Tim and what he’s done throughout his career has been amazing. To feel like I might have a little piece of something to do with that is an absolute honor.”
Gajewski deadpanned Wednesday about being in a group of head coaches on the podium with 36 combined WCWS appearances — 13 by Gasso, 12 by Murphy, 10 by Walton and one by Gajewski.
But the reality is he used to be in charge of cutting the grass, and now he’s in charge of an entire program that he has guided to the World Series.
“I think, for me, it’s surreal,” Gajewski said, “because getting here is so hard. These guys here, this whole group here, make it look so easy. It’s not. I know that.
“I’m just super thankful for Tim and his family and Florida for taking a chance on a groundskeeper. Went to be a director of (operations), now sitting here at OSU as the head coach. I just have so much to be thankful for. I texted Tim, I told him I’m super thankful for every opportunity that he afforded me.”
Both men owe Gasso a debt of gratitude as well.
“I don’t get to see them a lot or tell them a lot because we’re always in that win mode,” Gasso said. “But I’m really proud of these guys. It’s really been cool to see their journey together, but also, I mean, the fact that we’re all sitting here, a lot of this has gone through Oklahoma, is just a testimony to, I don’t know, learning and rooting from afar. Just to be part of it is an honor.
“Am I surprised that we are all sitting up here right now? No, I’m not.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “The Franchise Drive” every weeknight from 6-8 on The Franchise in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and appears throughout the day on other shows on The Franchise. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Hoover also covers the Big 12 for Sporting News and Lindy’s magazine and is a feature writer for Sooner Spectator magazine. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.