Charitsis: Rally time for Stanford Softball

May 16, 2023, 10:50 a.m.

PAC-12

After an impressive start to the season, the No. 7 Stanford softball team (40-13, 14-10 Pac-12) was again struck by bad luck. The third game in the series against Oregon State in late March, which they had already clinched, became a turning point. In fact, the Cardinal swept their opponent and improved their record to 27-3, 5-1 Pac-12 at the time. However, little did that matter. In the bottom of the first inning, Stanford had loaded the bases. Graduate student shortstop Emily Young was at the plate. She singled to third base, giving junior left fielder Caelan Koch a chance to sprint from second to third base. When she stepped on the base, she lost her footing. Although she was safe, her 2023 season was far from that. Unfortunately, she became the second athlete after sophomore infielder Johnna Schroeder — who is redshirting the 2023 season — to tear her ACL. Koch had been the most improved player up to that point. She had skyrocketed her stats, was leading in home runs and had secured a spot in the starting lineup. 

As if Koch’s absence was not enough, freshman pitcher NiJaree Canady was sidelined in mid-March for a month due to injury issues. Sophomore left fielder Dani Hayes was also injured. The Cardinal had to readjust mid-season and right before the toughest series in Pac-12 play. Although they battled against the No. 2 Bruins (52-5, 21-3 Pac-12), they were swept. Luck had completely turned its back on Stanford. However, the team bounced back emphatically and swept Arizona (29-25, 6-18 Pac-12). Then they lost the first game in the series against Utah (37-13, 15-9 Pac-12) and gifted away the other two. In both games, Stanford had the lead going into the last innings. Never before had it lost a game when it scored three or more runs. Yet, it did just that twice. The Cardinal are undoubtedly better, but they were going through turmoil at the time.

Canady’s addition back to the pitching roster strengthened the Cardinal defense. Stanford has won 14 games this year with her starting on the mound and lost just one. The Cardinal won the series against the Cal Bears (33-19-1, 9-14-1 Pac-12) at home and then swept Arizona State in Tempe, Ariz. The Cardinal closed the regular season against No. 9 Washington (38-12, 16-8 Pac-12). The clash between two top-10-ranked teams at Smith Family Stadium did not turn in Stanford’s favor. The first two games came down to the wire. In the opening match, Washington took the lead in the top of the sixth inning, shortly after a rain delay that threatened to postpone the game until the next day. Stanford responded immediately in the bottom of the same inning. Graduate student Taylor Gindlesperger sparked an epic comeback with an RBI double in the sixth and then capitalized on junior catcher Aly Kaneshiro’s sacrifice to score and give the Cardinal the lead and eventually the win with a score of 2-1. 

The next day, the Cardinal missed out on a unique opportunity to secure the win and clinch the series right off the bat, which likely will cost them the opportunity to host in the Supers. In the bottom of the first inning, they had loaded the bases with just one out. Nevertheless, Washington managed to get out of the jam. Senior pitcher Alana Vawter was solid in the circle, allowing just one run. Stanford was scoreless and lost the game 1-0. Senior Day was a day to remember before the first pitch but one to forget afterward. Stanford Softball paid tribute to its seniors for their contribution to turning it into one of the nation’s elite programs. Unfortunately, it was the first time all pitchers were far from their best and the Huskies prevailed without a fight.

Last Thursday, No. 7 Stanford faced off against No. 17 Oregon in the inaugural Pac-12 Tournament in Tucson, Ariz. The Ducks took an early lead 2-0 in the top of the second inning. The Cardinal were struggling offensively and could not find an answer. With two innings to go, they had their back to the wall. But then, the clash between the two sides transformed into a rollercoaster of emotions. At the bottom of the sixth, Stanford had no runners on base and two outs. Then graduate student shortstop Emily Young’s home run sparked another comeback. Sophomore designated player Kylie Chung singled and then scored when graduate student first baseman Emily Schultz doubled to left field. Going into the seventh inning, both teams were tied 2-2. There was a lot at stake, as a win also meant an automatic NCAA berth. Oregon pushed one across and regained the lead and then Luschar doubled, advancing Bird to third base. The Ducks had a single out; all they needed was a sacrifice to extend their lead. Under pressure, Vawter did what she does best. She retired the next two runners with back-to-back strikeouts. Chung, the sixth inning’s sniper, returned to the crime scene an inning later. She pinch hit for junior left fielder Ellee Eck and homered to right center. 

Next, freshman second baseman River Mahler stepped on the plate and singled. Gindlesperger’s clutch sacrifice bunt advanced Mahler, who came around to score on a throwing error. The Cardinal emerged victorious from their maiden Pac-12 Tournament match, one for the ages.

In the semi-final, Stanford looked No. 2 UCLA in the eye. NiJaree Canady (14-1) took the entire Bruins squad on alone. To say that she was on a mission is an understatement. The All-Pac-12 First Teamer, All-Pac-12 Freshman Teamer and nation’s leader in ERA (0.49) and strikeouts (168) per seven innings put on a clinic in the circle, striking out eight, walking just one and allowing only three hits — not to mention that she put up those numbers in just five innings. Then, she was replaced by Vawter, which caught many by surprise, including the ESPN2 broadcasters who covered the event. Obviously, head coach Jessica Allister and pitching coach Tori Nyberg, who are credited with the program’s steps forward year after year, had a tough decision to make. Most likely, they wanted to protect Canady, not pushing her to her limits and keep her fresh for the next day’s final. Moreover, both Canady and Vawter have shown signs of slowing down after five or six innings. 

Another reason might be that the next batter was UCLA’s leader Maya Brady, who was averaging an impressive .455. She had already stepped up to the plate three times against Canady and had likely made adjustments knowing what to expect. After all, throwing another All-Pac-12 First Team elite pitcher is not a bad idea, although, after the fact, it proved that keeping Canady in the game was the better option. 

The Bruins finally broke through in the bottom of the sixth, when Savannah Pola’s RBI single plated Maya Brady for the game’s only run. However, this would not have happened if it hadn’t been for a controversial call when Brady reached second base. ESPN2’s video slow motion showed that Mahler, who made an error catching a throw from Young, managed to scoop up the ball just in time. Errors during the action are part of any sport. However, the errors that hurt the most are inaction errors that are easy to prevent. Stanford should have called for a video review. Coach Allister, who had done so shortly before but it did not go her way, opted out this time although she had a review challenge to spare with less than two innings left. Mahler, who was involved and instinctively reacted to the referee’s call, should have signaled her coach to challenge it. Every cloud has a silver lining. She is just a freshman and this will be a learning experience for her and the team moving forward.

NCAA tournament

No. 9 seeded Stanford begins its journey to Oklahoma City on Friday at the Smith Family Stadium. It will host the NCAA Regional from May 19-21, the first in the last 12 years. 

The teams placed in its bracket are Long Beach State (31-12, 21-6 BWC), LMU (27-20, 12-3 WCC) and Florida (36-20, 11-13 SEC). The Cardinal open against Long Beach State on Friday while Florida plays LMU. The winners will face on Saturday for a spot in Sunday’s final. The second finalist will emerge from the elimination bracket on Saturday.

The Cardinal hold their fate in their own hands. They have undeniably the superior roster and are called to prove it on the field. If Stanford wins its regional it will travel next to Durham, unless No. 8 seeded Duke (45-10, 19-5 ACC) does not win its regional. In this case, the Super Regional will take place in Palo Alto.

Closing thoughts

Despite the many injuries, wins that were let to slip away, committed errors etc., Stanford has recorded 40 wins so far for the first time since 2012, produced its second-longest winning streak (21 games) and was constantly a top-10 team in the rankings. Canady, Vawter and Mahler were awarded All-Pac-12 First Team spots, the Cardinal’s most in that category since 2009 (Alissa Haber ’10, Ashley Hansen ’12, Missy Penna ’09). Add to that Gindlesperger, who inexplicably was on the All-Pac-12 Second Team instead of the First Team, and all of that is a testament to the talent and hard work of the team.

There is no doubt that Stanford can go very deep in the NCAA tournament. How deep remains to be seen. As competition gets stronger, it comes down to little details that can decide the outcome: making lineup adjustments, shuffling the batting order, deciding if and when to substitute a pitcher, asking players to step in when a game is on the line (e.g., Chung to pinch hit and/or Eck to pinch run), etc. Make no mistake, Allister and Nyberg will do their best to get the most out of the talent they have in their hands.

There are three things that work in Stanford’s favor. First, the double-elimination NCAA tournament format offers the opportunity to bounce back from a bad performance. Second, the Cardinal are one of the best defensive teams. And as the saying goes, defenses win championships. Their defense features arguably the best pitchers in the nation, outfielders like Gindlesperger and senior Kaitlyn Lim, infielders like Schultz and Young and catchers like Kaneshiro. Knowing that even when you struggle to score, you have a good shot at winning boosts your confidence. And when a game goes down to the wire, there is no shortage of clutch players. Third, every starter other than freshmen Canady and Mahler, who have had a phenomenal season so far, can draw experience upon last year’s deep run that ended in the Supers. They know how it feels to play in front of a home crowd in an elimination series. They know how to handle the pressure of being the favorite. They also know that staying loose without second-thoughts and regrets is key to their success. 

Freshmen or not, everyone on the team realized so far that there is no opponent that they cannot beat. They proved it in the Pac-12 Semi-final against UCLA. Only now, there is no time for errors. It is time to rally.

Charis is a recent alum (Ph.D.’23). If CS is his hobby, sports is his passion. Firm believer that the coach is the most important position in every team sport. A member of the sports section but not a journalist by any stretch of the imagination.

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