No. 9-seeded Stanford softball (43-13, 14-10 Pac-12) traveled to Durham, N.C. where it took on No. 8 Duke (48-10, 19-5 ACC) in an NCAA Super Regional. The Cardinal won back-to-back games advancing to their first NCAA Women’s College World Series since 2004 and third overall.
The writing was on the wall well before the season even started. Stanford’s incoming athletes were expected to contribute big time to an already superb and experienced team. However, the road to Oklahoma was not as smooth as hoped. It was rocky from the start, with three season-ending ACL injuries (sophomore infielder Johnna Schroeder, junior left fielder Caelan Koch and freshman left fielder Kyra Chan). Add to those less severe injuries that benched more athletes and you get the picture.
On top of that, Stanford gave away wins and missed opportunities to host the Supers. Nevertheless, there is so much talent on this team and everyone was determined to make history. Like center fielder Taylor Gindlesperger, first baseman Emily Schultz and shortstop Emily Young, who used their extra year of eligibility due to COVID-19 and stayed on the Farm as graduate students. They put in the work to perfect the craft heading to their last season in a Stanford jersey. Moreover, the freshmen exceeded expectations and led the team on multiple occasions. Thus, it was inevitable that nothing, not even bad luck, could hold head coach Jessica Allister ’04 and pitching coach Tori Nyberg ’03 back from another trip to the College World Series with their alma mater, this time from the sidelines.
This past weekend Stanford had a difficult challenge. They had to travel over 2,600 miles to battle against the Blue Devils. Duke was on a roll and was knocking on the door for its program’s first appearance in the College World Series. However, we knew beforehand that if both teams would bring their A-game, that door would not open.
Stanford, the visiting team, opened the action in the best-of-three series this past Friday at 9 a.m. PT. Duke’s freshman pitcher Cassidy Curd, started out ideally for the Blue Devils, striking out two. In fact, she did not allow a hit in the first four innings. The starting pitcher for the Cardinal was freshman NiJaree Canady, the nation’s leader in ERA (0.48) and strikeouts (193) in seven innings. Canady, who was named the previous day a top-3 finalist for the Freshman of the Year Award, took on another top-3 finalist, outfielder D’Auna Jennings who was Duke’s leader in batting average (.471), stolen bases (21) and base hits (80) up to that point. Undoubtedly these numbers are impressive and Jennings is a phenomenal athlete with a bright college career ahead. However, Canady proved from the get-go why this award must have her name on it. It took her five pitches to strike Jennings out, which she would repeat two innings later. Only the second time, it would take a pitch less. Jennings’ most successful trip to the plate was in the fifth inning, when she was grounded out on a full count by Canady’s teammates. Next, Canady gave up two hits, although she started with 0-2 count on both occasions. Typically, there is no need to worry as she hardly ever gives a run; a total of eight runs in the past. Indeed, Stanford retired a second batter. However, instead of closing out the inning with no runs, Duke managed to strike first. Vega singled up the middle over freshman second baseman River Mahler giving Davis enough to reach home – a run that could have been prevented. Stranford’s offense struggled in the next three innings, but its defense was spectacular. Duke’s Curd was pitching lights out in the first four innings.
A year ago, Stanford trailed Oregon State in the Supers and never came back. Nevertheless, last season’s abrupt end proved a blessing in disguise. It was evident that the Cardinal were eager to level the score, but they were not tense this time and they were not rushing to force plays. Instead, they were well-prepared, stuck to their game plan, were laser-focused and waited for the right moment knowing that Curd would not keep her pitching frenzy on for seven innings. Things did not start well in the top of the fifth for the Cardinal. Young was already 0-2 after a foul ball and a strike. Experience can make a difference in these moments. Indeed, the seniors and super-seniors put their stamp on the rally that started to unfold. First, Young stayed collected, making the right calls, and eventually walked. This was a turning point in the game and the series in general. Curd had not allowed a hit. Young was her first walk and Stanford, with a runner on first base, did not pose a serious threat yet.
However, the damage was done. The crack on Duke’s defense was a mental blow for Curd, who started second-guessing from that point on. Although Duke retired sophomore designated hitter Kylie Chung, Schultz capitalized on a fielding error and reached first base, while freshman infielder Emily Jones, who pinch-ran for Young, advanced to second. After the two super-seniors, it was time for senior right fielder Kaitlyn Lim to shine. She roped a one-out double to left center and with Jennings pulled in, Jones and Schultz were off to the races. Both plated for a 2-1 lead.
Stanford’s defense was firing on all cylinders. You could tell right then and there that Lim’s hit was all it took to secure the ‘W.’ Indeed, it took 10 pitches in the bottom of the fifth to retire all Duke’s batters. The top of the sixth was a masterpiece by Allister, the first of many. She asked sophomore catcher Allie Clements to pinch-hit for left fielder Ellee Eck and the sophomore from Texas singled up in the middle. In volleyball-like fashion, Allister brought Eck back to pinch-run for Clements. The junior from Kansas, known for her wheels, advanced to second on Mahler’s terrific sacrifice bunt and then to third on a hard hit by Gindlesperger that Duke’s first baseman failed to handle. Finally, junior catcher Aly Kaneshiro sealed Duke’s fate. Her RBI double brought Eck home, adding an insurance run.
Heading to the bottom of the sixth, the Cardinal had a 3-1 lead and their defense had immediate answers again. The only open question was how many pitches it would take to end the inning. It took exactly three pitches to retire each runner for a total of nine. An inning later, Canady struck out two runners while a third was grounded out. It was Stanford’s first Super Regional win in 12 years, since 2011 against Alabama. For the record, the top-3 finalist for the Freshman of the Year Award who completed the game in 97 pitches was still dealing at 70 miles/hr in the last inning!
The opener was nothing but ideal for the Cardinal. They not only won, but they came back from behind late in the game. After traveling over 2,500 miles and completing the most important game in the season that drained them emotionally and physically, the athletes had limited time to rest and recover for Saturday. The second game, initially scheduled for 12 p.m. PT, was moved up six hours to beat the forecasted rain. The new time was 6 a.m. PT, an hour and a half before the earliest softball game in the 2023 softball season. In other words, the athletes had to be up at 3 a.m. PT to get ready. Nevertheless, nothing could hold them back from accomplishing their mission. As expected, after an opener win, Stanford would swing better, increase its productivity and not look back.
For a second time, Duke took the lead in the first inning. This time the Blue Devlis, who were the away team, opened the action. Senior Alana Vawter’s pitch inadvertently hit Jennings, the leading batter in a play that cost both teams. Jennings advanced to first base but was in much pain. She tried to shake it off, but it was evident that she would not stay long in the game. As for Vawter, she missed a great chance to strike out Jennings as the count was 1-2. To make matters worse, Jennings scored later in that inning. Vawter allowed a run just like Canady did on the previous day, although both were preventable and not the pitcher’s fault. The top of the first inning ended with a laser throw by Gindlesperger and a timely tag by Kaneshiro, preventing a second run.
Duke’s lead was short-lived. In the bottom of the first, Mahler walked. Then, Gindlesperger singled through the left side and Mahler advanced to second. Moments later, she plated on an RBI single by Kaneshiro that advanced Gindlsperger to third. For another time, Young was clutch. Her sacrifice fly sent Gindlesperger home for a 2-1 lead. Her job was to drive the ball as deep as possible and she nailed it. Actually, the shortstop from Ohio could have homered but the wind, blowing in the opposite direction, kept the ball in the ballpark.
Vawter kept the second inning short for the Stanford defense, which retired two and struck out one. In the bottom of the second, Allister put Vawter in to pinch-hit for Eck. Vawter, who does not buy into the bait easily and will not swing unless the opposing pitcher goes for a strike, walked. Allister brought Eck back to pinch-run for Vawter. It was the same move as in game one, only this time with Vawter and Eck instead of Clements and Eck. Again, the junior from Kansas delivered. She stole second. Then Mahler singled to center field and brought Eck home for a 3-1 lead. Once again, Allister’s timely adjustments helped the team push one across. Duke responded immediately.
In the top of the third, Frelick replaced Jennings, who could not continue. The leadoff hitter homered to left field cutting the lead to a run. However, Vawter was not affected by the only run she was responsible for and closed the inning with a strikeout. Although the Cardinal could not score, it took Vawter 11 pitches to retire Duke’s batters. By that time, Vawter had found her form and very likely would not have allowed another run as her pitching was very efficient. Nevertheless, Allister and Nyberg put in Canady as a relief pitcher. It is generally a good idea to replace Vawter with Canady and vice versa after five or six innings unless the starting pitcher has put on a clinic up to that point with no signs of slowing down.
Canady picked things up where she left off the previous day and struck out two in the top of the fifth. Then, the Cardinal unleashed in the bottom of the inning as the seniors and super-seniors left their mark again. First, Gindlesperger singled to center field. This was her third hit in three at-bat attempts. Kaneshiro popped up, but Young singled on a perfectly executed bunt and Gindlesperger advanced to second. Chung, one of the most reliable hitters leading in home run percentage, singled on a smart hit that landed on the no man’s land, and Gindlesperger plated.
Then Schultz reached on a fielder’s choice and Jones, who pinch-run for Chung, got out while Young advanced to third. The best was yet to come with two outs. Schultz stole second and Lim waked. It was senior third baseman Sydney Steele’s turn to bat with loaded bases. She singled, Young scored and Schultz and Lim advanced.
With a 5-2 lead, the rest was history. However, the Cardinal were not finished. Sophomore left fielder Dani Hayes, who had not been at-bat since February 22 due to an elbow injury, stepped up to the plate for a third time after 19 games. She singled up the middle. Last year, her sacrifice bunt contributed to a rally that brought home three. This time, her RBI double brought home Lim and Schultz.
On both occasions, it happened in Stanford’s last scoring inning before punching a ticket for the next round. The Cardinal were scoreless in the last two innings but so were the Blue Devils who had no answer to Canady’s power pitches. She closed out the game with a strikeout and Vawter, who started, picked up her 20th win in the circle. Stanford had just punched its ticket to the College World Series for the third time in its history.
Stanford will travel to Oklahoma City. It opens the College World Series on June 1 against back-to-back champions No. 1 Oklahoma (56-1, 18-0 Big 12). The game, which is scheduled for 11:30 a.m. PT and will be covered by ESPN, is crucial moving forward.
The format of the College World Series is the following: First, the four teams in each bracket will compete in a double-elimination format – like in the Regional – for a spot in the final and then the two finalists will battle it out in a best-of-three series – like the Super Regional. The Sooners have been the most dominant team in the past three years, with a running and stunning 48-game winning streak, an NCAA record in college softball. Playing on home soil enhances their aura of invincibility, crowning them the undisputed favorite for a third consecutive title. As if the Cardinal’s challenge was not already difficult enough, two more formidable teams are placed in its bracket, No. 4-seeded Tennessee (49-8, 19-5 SEC) and No. 5-seeded Alabama (45-20, 14-10 SEC).
Stanford already made history, but it is not done. Although the Cardinal are in the strongest of the two brackets featuring the best teams in the nation they should not travel with the mentality that they have nothing to lose. They do. They have accumulated so much talent and they are the only team that can stop the Sooners from winning a third title in a row. Some may think that the win is a done deal for the Sooners looking back to their first clash, back in February, when they beat the Cardinal 10-1 in six innings. As mentioned before that game, for Stanford it was nothing but an experiment to test the waters for their rendezvous in June – exactly as it happened. After all, neither Canady nor Vawter pitched back then when a team was trying to find its early footing faced the back-to-back champions. A lot has changed since then.
Of course, it is not an easy mission and if both teams bring their A-game, Oklahoma will come out on top. However, if both teams bring their A+ game, Stanford will have the upper hand. This may seem like a paradox, but the explanation is quite simple: they have the best defense in the nation and defenses win championships. That’s how they should approach the opener and the College World Series in general.
If Canady keeps dealing heat, pressure will mount on Oklahoma. Indeed, the Cardinal will have a hard time scoring. However, if their defense brings its A+ game, the Sooners will be in even bigger trouble. Canady will likely annihilate Oklahoma’s batters like she did all three times in elimination games/series situations (i.e., against UCLA, in the Regional and in the Super Regional). That will not be enough, though. Inevitably, the Sooners will find their way to put runners on bases as their roster features five batters averaging .400 or above. Defense is a collective effort. In those moments her teammates, especially the infielders, have to be alert all the time and give up no errors. A single lapse of concentration can cost Stanford the game.
Have the Cardinal what it takes to pull it off? Absolutely. They proved on multiple occasions when their opponents knocked on the door that they can stay focused under pressure and shut if off. Allister and Nyberg know when to make the necessary moves on the chessboard (i.e., sub in pinch hitters, pinch runners, or relief pitchers and use the video challenges wisely) , including sacrifices (i.e., walk a formidable hitter in crucial moments, as they did against Florida in the Regional) to checkmate the opponent. Their record speaks for itself. The question is not whether the defense will execute perfectly inning after inning, but whether they do so in every inning or at least stay within striking distance at all times. In the opener against Duke they had to wait till the end of the fifth inning before their first hit. Yet Lim’s RBI double was enough to take the lead.
Patience pays dividends. As time passes, Oklahoma’s pitchers will slow down and won’t keep up with Canady who is a generational talent. It is possible that Patty Gasso, who has coached the Sooners for 28 years and has a lot of experience, will use May in relief for Balh if it goes down to the wire. The bottom line is that if Stanford defense performs to the best of its abilities and silences Oklahoma’s offense it will crack its defense sooner or later. A single run or two may be enough to emerge victorious and get right off the bat in the driver’s seat for a spot in the College World Series final, cementing the legacy of the 2023 team on top of Mount Olympus in the program’s history.