The 2023 season is here, and Stanford Softball fans could not be more excited. But why all the buzz?
It is typical for Stanford teams to function as one. The athletes live together, practice, compete and hang out with each other in their free time. When it comes to having fun competing, Stanford Softball is the champion. Those players are having a blast on the field, and it spills over to the fans.
Do you remember the excitement, the pure joy as a kid every time you picked up a ball to play your favorite sport with your friends or the rush to finish your homework early to get more playtime? That fire is still burning for Stanford Softball. Let’s put things into perspective to get an idea of how rare this is. When your day revolves around a sport and you spend hours training, competing, traveling, etc., you inevitably develop a “professionalism”; getting the job done and securing the ‘W’ by spending as little energy as possible. Yet, every time the Cardinal enter the field, they are genuinely as excited before each game as the kids waiting anxiously in the stands to meet their idols after the game. Their passion for the sport they fell in love with at an early age has not faded out one bit.
Now, how is this relevant? The answer is simple. Being loose has been the key to their success. To know where this team is going in 2023, you must know where it is coming from. One normally expects that hosting the No. 2 ranked in the nation with 25 wins straight or playing the No. 8 team on the road in an elimination series creates butterflies in the stomach. Not for Stanford Softball. They crack jokes, wave and smile to the fans and goof around before the match. Then, it’s seven innings of non-stop party, Ooshka-mania, dancing and celebrating. Post-game, they spend time with the kids and pitch with them.
Make no mistake, they take the task at hand seriously, but they don’t just want to get the job done. First and foremost they try to seize the moment knowing that their time in a Stanford jersey will fly by in the blink of an eye. The main goal is to have fun, and in the process, showcase their talent. In 2022, that was precisely the recipe for taking down No. 2 UCLA and ending its 25-win streak, No. 10 Arizona State, No. 25 Arizona and upsetting No. 8 Alabama in the Regionals to punch a long-awaited ticket to the Super Regionals. Their previous appearance was back in 2011 when Jenna Becerra ’12 was killing it on the field. Now, she is killing it in the broadcast booth, calling the softball games for her alma mater. Life comes full circle. Her team fell to Alabama in the very same park and 11 years later, she witnessed her successors taking revenge from the booth.
But then the tables turned in the Supers. Stanford, which had embraced the underdog role, suddenly became the favorite to win the series against Oregon State. The Boyd & Jill Smith Family Stadium was packed, and the stage was set for the trip to the College World Series for a third time in Stranford’s history. Unfortunately, the gravity of what was at stake got to the players’ nerves. You could tell from the warm-up. No excitement, no smiles, no playtime. Just anxiety and cold-stone faces. It felt like a dull day in the office. The Cardinal were tight, almost handcuffed and essentially handed the series to Oregon State. The top of the fifth inning on the second day is indicative. With all bases loaded and two players left to step on the plate, the match seemed a wrap for Stanford which had been extremely efficient on similar occasions. Yet, it let that one slip. A devastating loss for a team that had the talent and the skills to beat any team other than Oklahoma in a series.
One may have to go back all the way to the early 2000s to find a better Cardinal roster. All starters stayed on the Farm from a year ago. The sophomores gained tremendous experience from last season’s deep run. Finally, the top-ranked recruits add depth to the roster. Let’s take a closer look at the roster to get a better idea.
#15 Alana Vawter (Pitcher)
The senior pitcher from Missouri is a true leader. It is no wonder she is on the preseason watch list for player of the year honors. Sometimes it takes her an inning to find her groove, but once she does, she throws rockets. Vawter was on a mission in 2022, recording a 1.97 ERA, 11 shutouts and led the Pac-12 in wins with 25. The icing on the cake was the two complete game shutouts in the NCAA Regionals against Alabama, and the emphatic way they came — a total barrage of strikeouts.
#25 Taylor Gindlesperger (Center Fielder)
The graduate student from Arizona is quite versatile. Defensively, diving catches, crushing-into-wall catches, lots of speed, great fly ball reading ability and no errors make her one of the best center fielders in the nation. Offensively, she has wheels and does not hesitate to put her body on the line and dive/slide into bases. She is on the brink of breaking the school’s record in triples. Although she missed five games, she led the Cardinal in batting average (.341), hits (63), triples (six), total bases (89), stolen bases (an impressive 14 in 17 attempts), errors (zero), sacrifice flies (two) and field percentage (1.000) in 2022.
#21 Kaitlyn Lim (Right Fielder)
The senior from Irvine, Calif. shares many similarities to Gindlesperger’s defensive skills: amazing catches, great fly ball reading ability, a very strong arm and no errors. After all, the chemistry and coordination between the two outfielders are second to none. Offensively, she is a cannon. Although Stanford’s game plan is not based on hitting home runs, they are always welcome. Lim was the team’s leader in this category in 2022, finishing with seven. She also led in RBIs (40), slugging percentage (an impressive .524) (i.e., total number of bases per at-bat, not including walks and hit-by-pitches), sacrifice flies (two) and sacrifice hits (three), while she batted .311.
#1 Sydnee Huff (Second Baseman)
The senior from Yucaipa, Calif. is one of the best defensive players in the country. Can’t think of a better way to summarize her skills than senior pitcher Gabi Peters’s words: “70% of the earth is covered by water, the other 30% is covered by Sydnee Huff”. Even that seems questionable at times, as she is an octopus. Huff gobbles up everything coming her way, is very agile and quick, has excellent glove skills and a high IQ for the game. In 2022, she recorded a .985 fielding percentage with 97 assists and just three errors. Offensively, she recorded a .312 batting average, led the team in runs (35), on-base percentage (.382) (i.e., total number of times on base divided by the total number of times at the plate) and triples (six).
#2 Emily Young (Shortstop)
The graduate shortstop from Ohio always delivers. Excellent glove skills, range, agility, a cannon of a right arm, field vision and understanding of other players’ movement and no errors list a few skills she puts on the table. Even blindfolded, Young can connect with Emily Schultz on the first base. The two have more in common as they started in every game and never played in a different position. Defensively, ‘The Deuce’ led the team with 161 assists. Offensively, she had the second-best batting average (.320), had one less RBI than Lim (39) and recorded the most doubles (12).
#13 Emily Schultz (First Baseman)
Playing first base in softball is intimidating. The batted balls come to first base hot. To mention that the graduate student from Illinois has mastered the skills for the position is an understatement. She owns it. Last year, Schultz started in all 61 games, seeing time exclusively at first base. She is quite powerful, steady and catches bullets. It’s next to impossible to find an infielder with her reflexes. She led the team in putouts with a mindblowing 462. She normally bats over .300, although her batting average dropped last season to .242. Pulling the trigger is tempting if one possesses Shultz’s power that can knock balls out of the park. And sometimes she seemed to have made up her mind before the pitch. Going for it helps occasionally but hurts the stats over time. Her readiness and explosive release allow her to let the ball travel longer and read the pitch. I expect that she will utilize her unique skills frequently and terrorize the opposing defenses in 2023.
#4 Aly Kaneshiro (Catcher)
Excelling as a catcher is hard. You need to know how to call a pitch, how to observe the batters, block the corners off, prevent runners from stealing a base, etc. The junior from Santa Clarita, Calif. has what it takes: strong legs, powerful arm, quick reflexes and a high degree of hand-eye coordination. ‘Biggie’ is physically and mentally quick, as required by her position. Last season, she was second in putouts (258) defensively and home runs (four) offensively, while she committed only two errors.
#32 Sydney Steele (Third Baseman)
The senior from Poway, Calif. has everything it takes to be a solid third baseman. Her strong arm allows her to make long, accurate throws across the diamond. She started in all but one of the games last season, all at third base. Steele is quite agile and is not afraid of the ball, although line drives come fast. In 2022, she had the second most assists (125) on the team. Offensively, she batted .221 last year and hit three home runs.
#6 Regan Krause (Pitcher)
The junior from Illinois is nothing but one of the best pitchers nationwide. In 2022 she put up Vawter-caliber numbers. Stanford is really lucky to have this duet as starters. She went 11-4 with a team-best 1.66 ERA in 26 appearances, earning 17 starts. Krause struck out 77 in 109.2 innings with four shutouts in five complete games, also picking up a save. Her mental strength is phenomenal.
#9 Ellee Eck (Left Fielder)
The junior from Kansas is known for her speed. Defensively, she can make diving catches, is fast, has great fly ball reading ability and does not commit errors. Offensively, she batted .217 last year and tied for third on the team in triples (four) despite having fewer appearances (35 starts in 52 games).
#3 Caelan Koch (Left/Right Fielder)
The junior outfielder from Arizona can be efficient on either side of the field and has a powerful swing. Effectively a freshman last season since she redshirted in 2021, Koch began to scratch her potential in 2022. She batted .200 on the season, homered twice and had 12 runs in total.
#7 Tatum Boyd (Pitcher)
Although not as consistent as Vawter or Krause, she is up there when she brings her A game. The native Texan senior is always energetic inside the dugout, has a great sense of humor and makes the team laugh all the time and stay loose. The series against Oregon State in the Supers taught this is as important as hitting home runs. Not to mention, Boyd started the Ooshka tradition. Krause and she put on a clinic that led the comeback for the stunner against UCLA last year.
#5 Dani Hayes (Utility)
The sophomore from Pennsylvania is a utility player that embraces the challenges. In 2022, she played in left field. Hayes saw action later in the season and grabbed the opportunity by the horn. With her performance, she earned coach Allister’s trust and a spot on the field in every match thereafter. She knocked a flying sacrifice and a sacrifice bunt against Alabama in the Regionals. Sacrifices often fly under the radar, but those two were priceless.
#20 Johnna Schroeder (Third Baseman / Shortstop)
The sophomore from Stockton, Calif. is known for her swing. She is calm and collected. Last year, she was often called to the plate as a designated player and delivered, which secured her presence in all but one of the post-season games, where she scored a run against Alabama in the Regionals. She recorded a .277 (13-for-47) batting average which is quite remarkable for a freshman and promising for the future. Unfortunately, she sustained a serious ACL injury in the off-season. Such a setback after a strong college career start can be devastating for most athletes. Not for Schroeder, who is mentally sound and poised to come back stronger.
#12 Kylie Chung (Pitcher)
The sophomore from Thousand Oaks is a solid pitcher, although she can play other positions too. In 2022, Chung gave a small sample of her abilities. In her seven pitching appearances, she struck out 11 and registered a 1.50 ERA. Offensively, she homered against Cal and batted a solid .211.
The freshman class comes into Stanford highly touted, with a few expected to make an immediate impact in their first spring for the Cardinal.
#24 NiJaree Canady (Pitcher)
The freshman pitcher from Kansas is the No. 11 overall player in the class of 2022 according to Extra Innings Softball. The numbers that she put on during her high-school career are unreal (as a junior, she had a 0.26 ERA and 232 strikeouts in 107.2 innings, and she batted .478 with 13 home runs and 49 RBIs). NiJaree is expected to be a starter alongside Vawter and Krause. Offensively, she is a power hitter that can hit home runs.
#18 Emily Jones (Infielder)
The freshman infielder from Westlake Village, Calif. is the ninth-ranked overall player in the class of 2022 according to Extra Innings Softball. Emily, who excelled as a shortstop and second baseman prior to Stanford, has speed and power at the plate. She is expected to see a lot of action.
#22 River Mahler (Infielder)
The freshman infielder from Washington is also the No. 11 overall player in the class of 2022 according to Extra Innings Softball. River is a dynamic ball player with a great mix of speed and power that is known for her relentless work ethic and competitive fire.
Head Coach Jessica Allister ’04
Entering her sixth season at the helm of her alma mater, coach Allister is the mastermind behind the successes, which did not come overnight. She broke many barriers over a long period. Every year with her as head coach has been a step forward for the Cardinal. To put things into perspective. Stanford last appeared in the Regionals in 2013 and in the Super Regionals in 2011. She led the team to three consecutive Regionals (2019, 2021, 2022), a Super Regional appearance (2022) and a fourth place in the Pac-12 (2022) for the first time since 2013, to list a few of her achievements. What stands out is her long-term vision of the season and the program in general. What makes a coach great is the ability to take calculated risks with high rewards and Allister did just that. She sacrificed short-term success for team growth and deepening the roster. Late in the regular season, the Cardinal had a record that could potentially land them a home advantage in the Regionals. Yet many freshmen saw a lot of action at a time when Stanford was fighting for a good spot in the postseason. To the untrained eye, this seemed a not-so-good idea, an unnecessary risk. However, it paid off in the postseason. The freshmen stepped up their game and contributed to the wins. It must be credited to Allister’s coaching abilities as it didn’t happen for the first time or by accident. Coach Allister has revived the program. In fact, she is a big part of Stanford Softball’s history. As the starting catcher with the most appearances in the program history (266), she led the Cardinal to both of its College World Series appearances. Destiny calls her for a third time. Only now, from a different capacity.
Of all the plays in the last season, the one that stands out and best illustrates the bond between the players is dated April 8, 2022. With the score even after seven innings, the opening game of the series against the No. 2 Bruins went to extra innings. In the top of the eighth inning, UCLA’s Briana Perez swung deep, close to the wall between Gindlesperger and Eck. The two outfielders ran for the catch, but neither called for the ball. Eventually, Eck caught it but did not see Gindlesperger running at full speed toward her. The two collided and Gindlesperger went down hard. A scary moment, to say the least. Gindlesperger’s teammates rushed to check on her and the fans froze. Thankfully, the center-fielder did not suffer a serious injury. When she stood up, she was limping. You could tell she was in excruciating pain and you could see the tears in her eyes. Yet, her initial reaction was to shake it off and hug Eck to ensure that her teammate did not feel bad about the accident. That speaks volumes about the bond between the players. They genuinely care for each other like a family.
There is no better preparation to fight for the championship than a hard schedule in the regular season. The coaching staff did an excellent job putting together one of the most challenging schedules in the program’s history. On February 10, the Cardinal will face the defending back-to-back champions Oklahoma, which is also the unanimously ranked No. 1 program in the nation. Testing the waters against the nation’s top powerhouse, witnessing their speed, feeling their power and observing the little details that can make a difference are priceless. They can only make you improve and practice harder. And most importantly, get well prepared for the next time, which will hopefully be in June. The result of the game is secondary. On the other hand, a close battle with the Sooners will be the biggest confidence booster for the Cardinal. The next day, the Cardinal will play Duke, another top-ranked team. The following week, they will travel to Georgia to face the top-10 ranked Bulldogs.
As for the Pac-12, the 2022 season put a target on Stanford’s back. The action begins in mid-March against Oregon in Eugene. A week later, Oregon State returns to the Farm for the first time since the Super Regionals. The following weekend, Stanford will play in front of UCLA’s home crowd that will be seeking revenge after last year’s upset that B-ruined its 25-win streak. It will definitely be the most challenging series in Pac-12 play for the Cardinal. Arizona, another team looking for revenge, travels to Palo Alto a week later. However, beating Arizona won’t surprise anyone this time. In mid-April, the Cardinal travel to Salt Lake City to take on Utah and the following week they host a series against Cal. In late April they travel to Tempe to face Arizona State, and the following week, they close the Pac-12 action against Washington at home. Likely, there will be unexpected losses in the ride. It’s part of sports.
However, Stanford’s talent and deep roster put it in a great spot to improve its Pac-12 record, win more games and finish even higher than last year. Trusting the process and the coach, who knows best how to get them ready when it matters the most, is key. It may take a while for the team to make the necessary adjustments. I expect that all the pieces will be in place by mid-April, and the Cardinal will be firing again on all cylinders.
Stanford is one of the best defensive teams in the nation. When you are on the plate to bat and you have Vawter across from you, you are in trouble. Even if you hit the ball, the defensive line has Vawter’s back. The same goes for Krause who has proven that she can have shutout games against the best offenses in the country. It’s a no-brainer that Stanford’s defense is its biggest asset that paves the way to success. Offensively, the Cardinal work again as a team. They are not known for hitting a ton of home runs (although this is about to change) but for working collectively on loading the bases which adds pressure to their opponents, and eventually the Cardinal score. With the work that they put into their craft, their commitment to the goal (all seniors stayed for the extra year and started training early), the addition of very talented freshmen and the expected growth of the sophomores and everyone in general, it is reasonable to expect improvements in all aspects of Stanford’s game.
The key takeaway is that every single athlete brings something unique and important to the table. Some are more athletic than others. Some are more agile. Some have a stronger arm. Some are power hitters. Some see more action. Some cheer louder, like senior pitcher Gabi Peters who screams her lungs out in the dugout. At the end of the day, they all compete together, not against each other, for a spot in the starting lineup. They all win, celebrate and have fun together. Stanford Softball is all about feeding off of each other. Who knows if they will dethrone the back-to-back champions Oklahoma Sooners this year, but like coach Allister said, they should be competing for championships.
There is no doubt that the trip to Oklahoma City for the College World Series in June is within reach. Under two conditions, though. First, the athletes must stay healthy, and second, they must not allow the enormity of the occasion to alter their DNA. Softball is one of the most technical sports and is also mentally challenging. Softball is a game of failure. Think about it. When you step on the plate, the odds are against you, even if you are Jessica Mendoza ’02. Imagine having the mental strength to accept that you are more likely to fail before you swing, but not letting that get under your skin. Instead, you must somehow maintain your confidence and stay calm and collected. The best way to maximize your chances is to be loose, clear your mind and leave no room for anxiety or thoughts on how critical the situation is. For Stanford, this translates to trusting the process and letting the Ooshka-mania work its magic.
The potential to create a run for the books is undeniable, and everybody knows it. Of course, you never know what the future holds in sports. The only thing certain is that the season ends with tears for those hanging up their jerseys. Not even lifting the hardware will make them hold back these tears. And it won’t be just tears of joy. In case you are wondering why, you can find the answer in Steve McQueen’s paraphrased quote from the movie ‘Le Mans’: “Softball is important to women who do it well. Softball is life. Everything that happens before or after is just waiting”.