STILLWATER – Rylee Bayless wasn’t ready to leave Oklahoma State.
A senior on the Cowgirl softball team, Bayless was having trouble grasping she was just a few months away from being done. The realization was made all the worse when she had to write a letter about what she wanted out of her final campaign.
It is a senior tradition coach Kenny Gajewski has every year, as the letters are read usually around Senior Day when the season is wrapping up. Dealing with the fact every day was getting close to her last lacing up the cleats, Bayless decided to power through it.
After the team returned from Tempe, Arizona, in the first tournament of the season last February, Bayless was practicing in left field. The Cowgirls were getting ready to head to the Michele Smith Invitational in Clearwater, Florida, as Bayless continued to get adjusted to the outfield.
A third baseman by trade, she had moved back to let Vanessa Shippy take over the hot corner. It was in left field where Bayless went for a routine fly ball and her life changed.
Bayless called for it, but she was too late in calling it as shortstop Sydney Pennington was also trying to make a play on the ball.
The 5-foot-9 freshman tried to slow down. The 5-foot-3 senior braced for impact. Her left knee buckled and she and center fielder Maddi Holcomb heard a pop.
All Bayless could do was look at the sky. Her anterior cruciate ligament was busted.
“I knew automatically something was wrong, because my leg does not go that way,” Bayless said.
Hoping that it was something else, Bayless called her brother Zack (Bayless) after she got back in the locker room. Zack had experience with scary moments involving leg injuries as he had narrowly avoided a few when he played football.
“He said, ‘Oh that’s nothing. When I played, my knees popped all the time,’” Bayless said. “With him talking to me, I was thinking maybe I was fine and just being dramatic.”
Gajewski prepared for the possibility that one of his star players – one who had led the NCAA in walks her junior season after transferring from Northeastern Oklahoma A&M – wasn’t going to play again.
Bayless held out for good news, continuing to work in the training room and praying that her not swollen knee was a positive sign. Gajewski, who had dealt with players such as Madi Sue Montgomery going through this, tried to keep her positive.
“He told me, ‘Whatever this is going to be, we are going to work through it and figure it out,’” Bayless said.
Eventually, the bad news was confirmed and Bayless would have to miss the rest of the season – only five games in.
“The pain was really more of not being able to be at second base and watch Vanessa hit me in,” Bayless said. “I was never going to round third and go home to the seniors of that class. That was really the worst part.”
Gajewski tried to keep the positivity up around the program despite the big blow. Looking back, he thinks he could have addressed it more instead of ignoring it, but he considers it a lesson learned going into his fourth year as the leader of a program.
“I think last year when it initially happened, we knew it was going to hurt, because she is a difference maker with her bat,” Gajewski said. “I don’t think any of us had any idea of the emotional impact it was going to have and the energy impact that we lost. I knew she was special with the way she played and I just thought we could overcome that. We couldn’t and we never did.”
Bayless had to wear a brace during the season and could be found in the dugout acting as a volunteer coach. Despite her injury, she wanted to have a part in the Cowgirls’ season, one in which the program had the most hype around it that it had encountered in years.
“I wasn’t going to feel sorry for myself,” Bayless said. “I just knew what my role was. I understood my role after I got hurt. There was nothing else I could do, but I could control how I reacted about my injury. I could have just been down about it, but instead I pushed through.”
Working with trainer Claire Williams, Bayless was stretching her bum knee to its limits every day. With a work ethic that neared legendary status, Bayless hoped it would transfer over to her energy in the dugout. It was there, sitting amongst the reserves and watching her friends in orange and black have fun on the diamond, that she realized it would be harder than she thought.
A native of Kansas City, Missouri, Bayless took a trip to Lubbock, Texas, for the first time as the Cowgirls were taking on Texas Tech. Sitting there, she couldn’t fathom not being able to play.
“It was an eye-opening experience,” Bayless said. “I saw a tumbleweed and didn’t even know those actually existed. I was on the bus and we finally got there. I was so excited to suit up and go out there. Once I realized that I came all this way and I don’t even get to touch the field. That is when I realized that it sucked, because I really wanted to be out there with everybody, especially when conference play started since it is so much fun.”
She went to Gajewski and the rest of the OSU coaching staff, inquiring about what she was supposed to do. The energy she exhibited in her junior season, in the days where she came to games with here face painted and always brought the juice to the Cowgirls’ electricity.
“When I was in the dugout, it was really hard for me to be that person,” Bayless said. “My energy when I hit a double is raw. I can’t just be in the dugout and come up with it. They told me I didn’t have to be that person.”
Instead, Gajewski just told her to be positive and supportive of her teammates. She didn’t have to be screaming her lungs out, but she could be helpful in other ways. Gajewski also told her that the positivity would help keep her mind up in her rehab and ultimately make her a better person when she came back.
“I thought to myself that she was coming back and she will be better,” Gajewski said. “It was the message I gave her, same as Madi Sue. I don’t know why. I don’t know how, but it is going to happen because you love this game, you love this school and you love this program. We are going to be better and more mature for sure.”
OSU finished the season with 39 wins, almost making it to the last day of the Fayetteville Regional in Arkansas. Although he fell short of a Super Regional and possible Women’s College World Series berth, Gajewski knew having Bayless back for a redshirt season would make the 2019 season even better.
As former classmates Shippy, Holcomb and many others left after graduation, Bayless stayed throughout the summer. Getting used to her new senior class of OSU mainstays like Montgomery and Lynch, Bayless is excited to start her redshirt season with fall ball beginning Sept. 27.
Working with Williams, as well as strength and conditioning coach Wes Ulm, has Bayless back on the field a little over seven months after her ACL tear.
“I can’t sleep at night because I’m thinking about it,” Bayless said. “My hands are sweaty, because I am also excited to have some kind of competition with people who aren’t my teammates. It will be so satisfying to see all the hard work pay off and now that Claire and everyone told me the truth about the process and how great it is. Sometimes you have to embrace the suck.”
After not wanting to leave last season, Bayless got her wish in a roundabout way and is looking as the whole situation as a blessing in disguise. Not only does she get an extra year in softball, but she is also in graduate school after earning her bachelor's in university studies, something she never would have done if not for the injury.
“I didn’t want to leave and was not prepared for what is after softball,” Bayless said. “I graduated and then in the middle of the summer, they were asking me about grad school and I was thinking what I could get it in. I applied for grad school in leisure studies and now I am working on getting my masters.”
Whereas Bayless can’t wait to get started against Wichita State, Gajewski is over the moon with the talent influx he had in the offseason being bolstered by Bayless’ talent. For a team that hasn’t made the WCWS since 2011, Gajewski said the Winnetonka High product will be huge for a possible OSU return to the big time.
“Moving forward, I was thinking about putting her on this team and, ‘Whoa!’ This takes the shock of losing a Shippy away,” Gajewski said. “Honestly, people are going to kill me for saying this, but her numbers are going to be as good or better than what Shippy does. She may not hit for as much average, but she will be real close. She is going to steal more bases, walk as much, hit more home runs and drive in more runs.
“… Now, I’m thinking I’m glad she is back. At the moment, when she was staring at the clouds and crying and our whole team went into a shock, that was a tough day. Those are days you never forget, but I’m glad we are where we’re at now.”
Bayless will bring the energy level to the infield as well, with her returning to third base and moving well on her left knee enough to give the coaches and trainers no cause for concern. Fully ready for her last season of softball now, Bayless is ready to put on one final show.
“Honestly, tearing my ACL is one of the best things to happen to me,” Bayless said. “It has been such a positive experience for me. At first, it was negative but after I got past that, I realized there were so many positives that I can’t even call it a setback because at no point in time did I think it was going to stop me. I am glad I got to go through it.”