No. 9-seeded Stanford Softball (43-13, 14-10 Pac-12) hosted a regional this past weekend and advanced to the NCAA Super Regionals for the second consecutive season. The Cardinal, who faced Long Beach State (31-23, 21-6 Big West) in their opening game, were the strong favorite. No win should be taken for granted, though. The NCAA regional opener can put you in trouble if you don’t handle your business right. For instance, No. 2 UCLA (52-7, 21-3 Pac-12), lost 2-3 to Grand Canyon (47-13, 17-7 WAC) and then 2-1 to Liberty (40-22, 19-5 ASUN) despite leading early in both games. The Bruins, who were the only team that had appeared in every College World Series since 2015, suffered a shocking elimination.
That was exactly the situation that Stanford wanted to avoid this past Friday. You could tell that the athletes, although not tense, were not loose either. They seemed anxious to get the lead, just like their fans. On a night when senior pitcher Alana Vawter dominated the circle, something had to go very wrong for Stanford to lose. Vawter allowed only three hits without a walk and ended up striking out seven. Nevertheless, after five innings, there was nothing but zeros on the scoreboard. Both teams were scoreless, each allowing a single hit, and it seemed the game might not end in seven innings.
That was about to change in the next inning, although Stanford started with two outs and only right fielder Kaitlyn Lim on first base. However, graduate student center fielder Taylor Gindlesperger was clutch again. Her RBI double to right center gave Lim the opportunity to score.
Right then and there, fans knew that this single run cemented the win and celebrated as if it were a grand slam. Indeed, Vawter got down to business in the last inning and delivered a complete shutout, her fourth in the season. Despite the 1-0 narrow win, Stanford accomplished its mission.
Day two opened with the clash between Friday’s winners. Florida (38-22, 11-13 SEC), who beat LMU (28-22, 12-3 WCC) 3-2, was a more difficult opponent on paper. The burden from the opening day for Stanford had been lifted and the players seemed quite relaxed before the first pitch. Freshman pitcher NiJaree Canady picked things up where she left off against UCLA in the Pac-12 Tournament. From the very first pitch, the nation’s leader in ERA (0.46) and strikeouts (180) in seven innings made it clear to the Florida runners that they were in trouble.
On the other hand, the Cardinal revealed their scoring intentions right off the bat. In the bottom of the first inning, freshman second baseman River Mahler reached second base. However, Stanford postponed till the next inning what seemed inevitable. Sophomore designated hitter Kylie Chung walked. Then graduate student first baseman Emily Schultz singled to right field and Chung advanced to second. Next up was Lim. Her sacrifice bunt advanced Schultz to second and sophomore left fielder Dani Hayes, who pinch ran for Chung, to third. Eventually, Hayes capitalized on a fielding error by Florida’s third baseman Sam Roe and reached home, getting Stanford on the scoreboard.
The Cardinal left one runner on third and one on first base at the end of the second inning. Although they failed to extend their lead, their offense was on fire. Indeed, they unleashed in the bottom of the third. Gindlesperger, who opened the inning, singled up the middle. Then junior catcher Aly Kaneshiro homered, giving Stanford a 3-0 lead.
Next, Chung singled up the middle and Young advanced to second. Schultz gave Young a chance to reach third base. She scored on a wild pitch. Finally, Schultz and Lim also scored on a perfectly executed double down the left line by senior third baseman Sydney Steele.
With a 6-0 lead and Canady in the circle, it was a wrap. The only unknown was how many innings were left in the game. Stanford needed two more runs to close it out in six. It found the first in the bottom of the fourth. However, it could have brought more home, as three runners were left on base. Then, it had to wait until the bottom of the sixth to find the second run and reserve a spot in Sunday’s final. In the meantime, Canady was relentless in the circle. In her NCAA Tournament debut, she couldn’t help but leave her stamp. She allowed only two hits without a walk and had nine strikeouts in six innings. Sounds familiar, right? Less than a day after an impressive pitching performance, it seemed as if Canady was reassuring Vawter, who was cheering her on in the dugout: “Anything you can do, I can do too.”
If day one was successful, day two was a statement.
The last day featured the final between Stanford and Florida, which had prevailed 10-6 in its elimination game against LMU the day before. The Cardinal, who were batting first, came out aggressive. Mahler walked and then Gindlesperger singled through the left side, giving Mahler enough to advance to second. Next, Kaneshiro singled and the Cardinal had runners on all bases. However, none of this would have happened if it wasn’t for the crowd’s reaction. Kaneshiro was initially out but the Stanford fans who were sitting right in front of the action reacted to the call. Coach Allister, on the opposite side of the diamond, had no visual of what happened. Initially, she did not object to the decision. However, she challenged the call a few seconds later after hearing the crowd’s reaction. The challenge was successful and Kaneshiro was safe.
With the bases loaded, Young almost hit an RBI that fell just outside the line near first base. Young lined to third base shortly after in an unassisted play that sent her and Mahler out. Instead of taking the lead, Stanford had picked up two outs with no runner on third base anymore. That was the first of numerous opportunities to score in the game. Eventually, Chung singled up the middle and Gindlesperger ran from second to home. Stanford was in front 1-0 after the top of the first inning.
The Gators capitalized on Vawter’s slow start and gained the lead 2-1 in the bottom of the first inning. Those were the only runs allowed by Vawter, who kept pitching better as time passed. After a scoreless second inning, the top of the third inning was almost a replay of what had happened in the first. Stanford had two outs and runners on first and second base. Chung singled and Gindlesperger again left second base and reached home.
However, this time, it was Lim’s turn for a second RBI. She singled to left field and Young scored, giving Stanford back the lead 3-2. Stanford had another opportunity to score in the top of the fourth with runners on second and third base and just one out. Florida got out of the jam, but it did not last long. The Cardinal sealed the Gators’ fate in the next inning. Schultz singled to left field and then both Lim and junior outfielder Ellee Eck walked. With all bases loaded, a wild pitch gave Schultz the opportunity to score and Lim and Eck the opportunity to advance to third and second, respectively. Mahler walked and then Gindlesperger worked a bases-loaded walk, extending the lead to 5-2. Finally, Kaneshiro followed with a two-run single, scoring Eck and Mahler.
With a 7-2 lead and Vawter in the circle, the rest was a formality. Two innings later, the Cardinal put the cherry on top to please their fans. In their last inning at the Smith Stadium in the 2023 season, they hit two home runs. First, Steele homered to left field and then Young to left center, bringing home Mahler, who was on second. In the meantime, Eck had scored on Kaneshiro’s sacrifice fly.
At the bottom of the seventh, Canady, who had replaced Vawter as relief pitcher in the last out of the sixth inning, was nothing but spectacular, striking out two of three batters in that inning and three of four in total.
Day three was the cherry on top.
Stanford will travel to Durham, N.C. to battle it out with Duke (48-10, 19-5 ACC) in the NCAA Super Regional for a ticket to Oklahoma. This will be its seventh Super Regional appearance overall and its first in back-to-back seasons since 2008-09. The first pitch of the opening game in the best-of-three series is scheduled for Friday at 9 a.m. PT. The second game will begin on Saturday at 12 p.m. PT. If the teams are tied, the third and final game will take place on Sunday.
Last year, hosting the Supers not only did not help, but also backfired as it added enormous pressure. However, this has changed completely. I believe that hosting the Supers would be very advantageous for Stanford. The athletes were on a roll in the regional and never looked tense. Instead, they used the crowd support in their favor. Not having to travel would mean more time to rest. Moreover, playing on the field where they practice daily would be a plus.
Additionally, the home team in games one and three (if necessary) is batting second, which usually takes off some pressure. Unfortunately, the Cardinal missed out on a unique opportunity to stay in Palo Alto for the Supers.
Their mission is undeniably more difficult now. However, Stanford still has the upper hand and multiple reasons to feel good about its chances if both teams play to the best of their abilities. The Cardinal were ranked higher than the Blue Devils for most of the season. They have paid for the wins that they let slip away and committed errors that were easy to prevent. As for the errors, Stanford committed just two in the regional, one against Long Beach and one against Florida in Sunday’s final. Coach Allister’s challenges were on close calls and always were the right decision, even if some did not go her way. The first inning in Sunday’s final is a good example that everyone on the team, from the fans to the players and the staff, must help the coach not waste opportunities that may even decide the winner in a close game. Against Florida, a successful challenge did not decide the winner, but against Duke it can easily do so.
The Cardinal could not be more ready at this stage. After all, they faced much stronger competition than the Blue Devils in the regular season. Pac-12 is as competitive a conference as any. Four Pac-12 teams won their regional. The only two Pac-12 teams that did not advance were UCLA and Cal (35-21-1, 9-14-1 Pac-12). UCLA’s early elimination shocked everyone. As for Cal, it fell to back-to-back national champions No. 1 Oklahoma (54-1, 18-0 Big 12) in the regional final.
If the Cardinal win the opening game, there is no looking back. When they swing freely, they are way more productive. Knowing they have better defense will put them immediately in the driver’s seat. Friday’s game will likely be a close, low-scoring game. Even if the Cardinal struggle to score, which is possible, they can have the upper hand as long as they keep their opponent scoreless. If Canady and Vawter bring their A-game (e.g., Canady against UCLA in the Pac-12 semi-final this year and Vawter against Alabama in the regional last year), all Stanford will need is a single run. After all, the numbers speak for themselves. Duke has 14 shutouts in 58 games (i.e., 24%), while Stanford has 19 in 56 games (i.e., 34%) against stronger teams.
Undoubtedly, Stanford has gone through a lot this season. The Cardinal were struck by bad luck multiple times. As if junior left fielder Caelan Koch’s and sophomore infielder Johnna Schroeder’s ACL injuries were not enough, freshman left fielder Kyra Chan recently sustained the same injury. The Cardinal wasted many opportunities to host the Supers and now have a difficult task at hand. Nevertheless, it is impossible to overlook the talent of this team and bet against it. If the Cardinal take care of business as usual on the defensive end, the trip to Oklahoma City is well within reach.