As Taylor Ellsworth adjusts to an unfamiliar position, Texas gets set for a familiar foe
In college softball, the postseason is a great place to run into people that you don't often see.
Since Texas' first trip to the NCAA Tournament in 1998, the Longhorns have faced 48 different postseason programs. Only three of those — Oklahoma, Nebraska and Texas A&M — also hailed from the Big 12. Texas hasn't met a conference rival in the NCAAs since 2013.
But this week, a familiar foe stands between the Longhorns and their first appearance in the Women's College World Series in eight years. Texas (42-12) opens a best-of-three super regional hosted by Oklahoma State (45-9) on Friday.
"I think it's really exciting to play OSU again," Texas outfielder Taylor Ellsworth said. "We need a couple redemption games. I think that we are going to come out guns blazing, ready to play."
Texas owns a 35-26 lead in its all-time series with Oklahoma State. The Cowgirls, however, have won 12 of the last 14 clashes and are 4-0 against the Longhorns this season. Three of those games have been decided by two runs or less. At the Big 12 Tournament earlier this month, Oklahoma State beat Texas on a walk-off error in extra innings.
Oklahoma State infielder Sydney Pennington said her coach has been preaching that "there's going to be no secrets in these games." Cowgirls coach Kenny Gajewski said he recently expressed those same sentiments to Texas' Mike White.
"I've known Mike for a long time," Gajewski said. "I told him last night, I said, 'You have your head buried in film or are you just enjoying this?' He goes, 'I don't know what more than we can find out.' I said, 'Me either.'"
Added White: "I haven't watched any film yet. It's not going to take long to do, I'm just going to have to watch the last few (games) to see if anything's changed from my last game plan. It won't take much."
Of the 22 players on Texas' roster, none are more familiar with this all-orange rivalry than Ellsworth and fellow outfielder Kaitlyn Washington. Since both became Longhorns in 2017, they have faced Oklahoma State 14 times.
During her first five starts against Oklahoma State, Ellsworth was UT's catcher. Oklahoma State didn't see her for two years — she was injured in 2019 and the 2020 campaign was cut short by the pandemic — but she was manning a new position when they next met.
Ellsworth was moved to right field during this season. The position change allowed Texas to keep two traditional catchers in the lineup. A first-team all-conference pick, Mary Iakopo's 15 home runs are tied for her team lead. Ellsworth's .381 batting average ranks second.
Ellsworth played a little shortstop during her youth, but catcher was all she really knew. Growing up, she was mentored by former UT standout Megan Willis. As a high school freshman, she was already calling the pitches at Georgetown.
But, as Ellsworth put it, "all of us are just trying to show up and do our job, and I learned that I have to show up and do my job, whether it's catching or in the outfield." She has caught only one game this month. Ten of her last 12 starts have been in right field.
The transition has not always been smooth. In a regional game against Oregon last week, Ellsworth dropped a fly ball in right. That error put two runners on base with one out in the fifth inning, but the Ducks couldn't capitalize on the mistake. Ellsworth said she "had a few tears of joy" after Texas retired the next two batters.
"It is a learning curve and it's not going to be perfect and I have to accept that, even though I know it's frustrating for myself," Ellsworth said. "My teammates really got us out of that inning. At the end of the day, that's all that matters."
Ellsworth skipped her senior season at Georgetown and enrolled early at Texas. As a freshman, she earned all-conference honors. The following year, her five home runs tied for the team lead.
But due to a hand injury and the pandemic, she was limited to 20 games over the 2019 and 2020 seasons. Since she redshirted in 2019 and the NCAA granted a do-over for 2020, she still has a year of eligibility remaining.
Ellsworth hasn't ruled out the possibility of playing elsewhere in 2022 as a graduate transfer. Her time at Texas, though, is coming to an end.
"I really just want to go out with a bang," she said. "I think this year, we have a really high chance of making it to the World Series and winning the thing."