'Hit to me': Oklahoma State shortstop Kiley Naomi wants the ball in the WCWS. Here's why.
Kiley Naomi fielded the ground ball so deep in the hole that she’d have been on the outfield grass if she'd taken a step back.
But she didn’t take a step back.
The Oklahoma State shortstop actually didn’t take any steps at all on her throw to first base, instead planting her weight on her back foot and sidearming the ball perfectly across the infield. She made the difficult play look so effortless Sunday afternoon against Texas that you almost wondered if it was a bit of a fluke.
Like the swinging gate or the flying V or the suicide squeeze.
Might work once, but could it be replicated?
Naomi proved it could — and she did it on the very next batter. She fielded a ground ball in almost the exact same spot and made the exact same back-foot, side-arm throw.
“It may look like I’m gonna throw it all the way to left field,” Naomi said, “but I try and make it straight as possible.
“We practice those plays every single day.”
Listen, lots of infielders could practice what Naomi did and still never be able to do it.
Her defensive prowess is the reason Cowgirl coach Kenny Gajewski calls her one of “the best players in the country that nobody gives any credit.”
“It drives me nuts,” he said.
Naomi will have a chance to show the college softball world what she’s got this week. As OSU prepares to return to the Women’s College World Series, the Cowgirls have an opportunity to make a deep run, and if they do, it will be because of defense.
For as great as Carrie Eberle is — and the Cowgirl ace is spectacular — she is not a strikeout pitcher. She wins by getting hitters to put the ball in play, then letting the defense behind her go to work.
No one has Eberle’s back any better than Naomi.
“She’s a freak show,” Gajewski said earlier this season. “She just plays at a different level.”
That has always been the case with her defense. Even when she arrived at OSU as a freshman in 2019, she was ready to be a major-college shortstop. She says that was the result of lots of extra work in her early years playing softball as a kid in Louisiana.
“When I was younger, I was probably a better hitter than I was defender,” she said. “I was like, ‘Why is it so hard for me?’”
She wanted to get better, so she was constantly working. Drilling. Fielding. Throwing.
Her dad, Ronnie, who was her coach for the better part of a decade, worked with her a lot. They saw improvement, but even as Naomi started playing travel ball, her defense wasn’t as good as she wanted it to be.
Then, right before she started middle school, something clicked — all the time she’d spent on her mechanics had changed her mentality.
“OK, this is my game right here,” she remembers thinking. “Defense is my game.”
Now, don’t misunderstand. Naomi is no slouch offensively.
She is hitting .353 this season, fourth best among the Cowgirls. Her 14 home runs and 37 RBI are the third-highest marks on the team, behind only Alysen Febrey and Hayley Busby.
But much like Naomi built her defensive skills as a kid, she had to work hard on her offensive ones as a Cowgirl.
Her freshman year, she “got by” — her words — and had a decent batting average. But she wasn’t anywhere close to where she wanted to be.
“When you’re younger, having that long, big swing is not a bad thing because the pitching isn’t as great,” she said. “You have to adjust when you get to college.”
Naomi set to work with Jeff Cottrill, OSU’s hitting coach, and while they didn’t make wholesale changes, they removed her step out, focused on using her lower body and shortened her swing.
Now, batting leadoff, Naomi has become one of the Cowgirls biggest bats.
The first pitch she saw during the NCAA Tournament, she smashed out of the park. It was the first of three home runs she’s hit in the tournament, two during regionals and one during super regionals.
The Cowgirls will need her hitting in the WCWS.
But more than that, they’ll need her defense — and she is more than happy to oblige.
“Defense is just my go-to,” she said. “I love making plays. Just making it look fun and easy.”
Kiley Naomi can’t do it alone, of course. But she believes good defense feeds on itself; one good play can fuel more good ones. She also believes her defense can be the spark for the Cowgirls’ fire.
“When I’m out there on the field, I’m just waiting for a ball,” she said. “I’m just asking for one.
“I’m hoping the ball gets hit to me.”
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or email@example.com. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok, and support her work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.
Thursday's games at USA Softball Hall of Fame Stadium (all games on ESPN):
11 a.m.: OU vs. James Madison
1:30 p.m.: OSU vs. Georgia
6 p.m.: Arizona vs. Alabama
8:30 p.m.: Florida State vs. UCLA