Charitsis: Championship-caliber softball falls in the NCAA Semifinal to Oklahoma after epic battle

June 28, 2023, 8:48 p.m.

No. 9-seeded Stanford softball (47-15, 14-10 Pac-12) completed the season in Oklahoma City, falling to No. 1 Oklahoma (61-1, 18-0 Big 12) in an epic semifinal, which was decided after two extra innings. The battle against the Sooners could have gone either way. 

Stage setup

After its trip to Durham, N.C., the next and final destination for Stanford softball was Oklahoma City for its first College World Series (CWS) in the last 19 years. The CWS opener on June 1 was as tough of a challenge as any — Stanford had to face the nation’s No. 1 team, Oklahoma. To say that the Sooners had the pedigree to compete at the highest level on the biggest stage is an understatement. Before the CWS, their record was 171-8 in the last three seasons. The abundance of experience trickles down from the coaches to the players who had won the title in the last two years. Their well-rounded roster featured two pitchers that finished the season with a 0.9 ERA, four hitters that averaged .400 or above and starters that averaged .325 or higher. The Sooners had a running 48-game win streak, an all-time record. 27 of those wins were via run-rules. Their offense had produced 112 home runs and a total of 478 runs. Defensively, they had 32 shutouts, 17 errors and 422 strikeouts. Patty Gasso has been coaching the team for 28 seasons, leading it to 28 postseason appearances, 15 CWS appearances and six NCAA titles, before the CWS. Oklahoma was the heavy favorite to beat Stanford in its quest for a seventh overall and third consecutive NCAA title.

College World Series Opener

Nevertheless, those who had followed the Cardinal knew how resilient they were. They could take down any team, even Oklahoma. Indeed, that ended up close to happening. Freshman pitcher NiJaree Canady was again phenomenal. Oklahoma’s offense, which averages more than eight runs per game, could not find answers. The Freshman of the Year and Freshman All-American stuck out seven, walked one and allowed only four hits in five innings.

However, against the Sooners, there is no room for mistakes. A fielding error was enough for them to put two across after an RBI single in the fifth inning. Right then and there, Oklahoma slammed the door. In the sixth inning, senior pitcher Alana Vawter replaced Canady in relief. The Second Team All-American — one of just 17 in the program’s history — allowed no runs, but the damage was already done. Although Stanford brought its A game, becoming only the fourth team in the season to hold the Sooners to two runs or less and having scoring opportunities (e.g., left two runners in scoring position in the first inning and had two runners on first and second with zero outs in the fourth and fifth innings), it remained scoreless and lost the opener.

Bouncing back

Stanford’s loss meant it had to win the next four elimination games in a row to advance to the championship best-of-three series. That can happen in a regional, but in the CWS it takes almost a miracle. The Cardinal had no other option but to take one step at a time. In its first elimination game the next day, it faced No. 5 Alabama (45-22, 14-10 SEC). Senior pitcher Alana Vawter was the Crimson Tide’s nemesis as she repeated what she had done a year ago in the regional; her performance was one for the ages. She and Canady, who replaced her in relief, combined for a one-hit shutout. 

Senior third baseman Sydney Steele, who upped her game in the postseason, supplied all the offense. She finished 2-for-3. Her RBI double in the second inning plated graduate student first baseman Emily Schultz, who scored for the Cardinal’s first time in the CWS since 2004. 

Steele also belted a home run in the seventh for insurance.

Stanford’s defense passed the first elimination challenge with flying colors.

Next, Stanford had to battle it out with No. 7 Washington (44-15, 16-8 Pac-12) on June 4 for a spot in the semifinal. Canady, who had just two days to rest, put on a clinic. She completed a one-hit shutout in which she walked none, struck out nine and allowed a single three-ball count.

It came down to the wire as the Huskies’ defense was effective in moments when Stanford was in scoring position. Gindlesperger led off with her second single in the bottom of the sixth inning. She then stole second with two outs and advanced to third on a throwing error by the catcher. Sophomore designated hitter Kylie Chung followed with an RBI single to left field, plating Gindlesperger for a 1-0 Cardinal lead. Then both teams remained scoreless and Stanford came out victorious.

Epic semifinal

Going into the final, the Cardinal had to climb Mount Everest. They needed to beat the Sooners twice on June 5, a day after the close elimination game against Washington. Stanford’s defense was second to none when playing its best, but the Sooners had the strongest offense in the nation and their defense had produced the best numbers on paper. However, the biggest obstacle to overcome was the limits of the human body. The Sooners had two days to rest and prepare while Stanford was fighting to survive. The pitching count of the pitchers before the semifinal speaks for itself. Canady had thrown 220 times in 13.1 innings and Vawter 109 in 6.2 innings. On the other hand, Oklahoma’s pitchers, Jordy Bahl and Nicole May, had pitched 161 and 10 times in 10.2 and 0.1 innings, respectively. The opening inning could not have gone better for Stanford. Vawter was efficient in the circle and the Cardinal quickly retired the leadoff hitters. Then Gindlesperger singled through the right side and later advanced to second. With two outs, it was Chung’s turn to swing. The sophomore from California, who had the highest percentage of home runs on the team, blasted a homer, putting her team ahead 2-0.

Stanford’s lead was short-lived. In the second inning, Oklahoma scored a run with transfer student Brito, and in the third inning, it tied the game after a solo home run. Jayda Coleman took a pitch on the inside part of the plate and turned on it, taking it over the right field fence. Vawter’s pitch was almost unhittable. Yet, somehow Coleman managed to homer, which only shows the level of competition Stanford was up against.

With the game on the line, head coach Jessica Allister ’04 put Canady in the game in relief of Vawter in the fifth inning. At that point, the All-American from Missouri had 72 pitches, four less than May’s total throws in the entire tournament. Canady was dealing heat from the moment she stepped in. First, she made Coleman fly out, then struck out Jennings and finally made Lee fly out too. The nation’s best pitcher showed her intentions against the nation’s best leadoff hitters. In the sixth inning, the freshman from Kansas was nasty, striking out three. Stanford saw an opening to score in the bottom of the sixth. Gindlesperger singled. Immediately Gasso put in Bahl, Oklahoma’s best pitcher. Young singled and Gindlesperger advanced to second with no outs. However, Bahl was efficient in the circle and Stanford did not score. 

The battle between Canady, the Freshman of the Year in 2023, and Bahl, the Freshman of the Year in 2022, set the tone for the dogfight between the two teams. It was clear that Oklahoma wanted to wear Canady down. The number of pitches that Canady had thrown in the CWS started taking a toll on her body — she ended the game with 85 for a total of 305 — as her pitches dropped in velocity from 72-74 mph to 68-70 mph, which was still much faster than what most pitchers are throwing. The drop in velocity, combined with the adjustments of Oklahoma’s hitters over time, tipped the scale in their favor. 

The Sooners started the seventh inning strong, putting two runners on first and second bases with no outs, while the top of the lineup was coming up. With Coleman at the plate up 3-0 in counts, the pressure was mounting for Stanford. However, Canady thrives in these moments. With two strikes and her trademark rise ball, she made the Big 12 Player of Year pop up to left field. Stanford was not out of the woods yet. Next up was Tiare Jennings, with an average of .517 with runners in scoring position. Little did that matter for Canady, who delivered three strikes in a row. The last one was again her dominant rise ball. With two outs, Gasso threw in a lefty to pinch hit as Canady had an insanely low opponent batting average of .062 against right-handers as opposed to .224 against left-handers. That did not stop Canady from forcing Jocelyn Erickson to pop up to left field.

Although Stanford’s defense survived, its offense was inefficient in the bottom of the seventh. So was Oklahoma’s in the top of the eighth. The Cardinal started strong in the bottom of the eighth with their top of the lineup, the only one posing a threat to the Sooners. Gindlesperger, who finished 3-for-4, singled and then Young, who finished 2-for-4, executed a perfect bunt. The start was the same as in the sixth inning. Runners on first and second and no outs for the Cardinal. However, the finish was also the same. Bahl again had answers for junior catcher and Gold Glove Award recipient Aly Kaneshiro, Chung and Schultz.

The top of the lineup would have to wait again until the 10th inning, but this was not meant to happen. In the top of the ninth, Grace Lyons doubled for the Sooners and then advanced to third with two outs. It was Coleman’s turn. Pitching coach Tori Nyberg ’03 asked Canady to walk the lefty, who hit the two-run RBI in the opener. It was a brilliant idea as, effectively, nothing changed. The goal was to prevent a hit that would plate Lyons. The chances against the right-handed Jennings, who was next and Canady had struck out four times before, were higher to prevent a hit. Canady got ahead 0-2. All Stanford needed was a strike to get out of the jam. Unfortunately, in her fifth pitch, Canady did not throw her trademark rise ball or a changeup, but a curve ball which ended up a hit for Jennings. That was the only wrong pitching decision in the game. Jennings’ two-run RBI was the dagger for the Cardinal, who did not score in the bottom of the ninth and lost. As mentioned, Stanford was the only team that could end Oklahoma’s quest for a third consecutive title. The Sooners survived and swept Florida State (58-11, 22-2 ACC) easily in the CWS final, beating the Seminoles 5-0 in the first match-up and 3-1 in the second.

Semifinal that should have been the final

Both games against Oklahoma went down to the wire. Each battle was a coin toss that could have gone either way.

“I feel like we got a really tough, tough match-up. Stanford is very well coached, and I felt that watching them.”, said Gasso after the opener. “That was a probably one of the most stressful first games that I can remember in a long time.”

After the semifinal, Gasso admitted: “What a battle today for both teams, very even and just back and forth the whole way.”

Allister was on the same page after the semifinal: ”I think we went toe-to-toe with them. I thought we played great games, and I think, like I said, an inch here, an inch there, that can be a very different outcome in both games.”

The Sooners won on both occasions, but the real winners were the fans and the sport itself. “I think that could have been a championship game. I think that could be a championship best-of-three series.”, said Allister. It could have easily happened. In the second game of the series against Washington in the regular season, Stanford had a great chance to score in the first inning with its bases loaded, only one out and full count for Chung who was at bat. Had it not let the opportunity slip away, it would have clinched the series, would have been seeded No. 7 instead of Washington and would not have been placed in the same bracket as Oklahoma. In all likelihood, the championship final would feature the best two teams in the CWS, Stanford and Oklahoma.

A championship series between the two teams in front of 13,000 fans would have been the best advocate for the sport. In a dream scenario, both teams would have been injury-free and well-rested, ready to showcase their strength and talent to the fullest.

Uneven playing field

Those who tuned in to watch the clash between the Cardinal and the Sooners enjoyed two close battles. However, the game action is the tip of the iceberg, considering what it takes to build a program to compete at this level. Although the two teams looked very even on the field, the conditions under which they competed and how the two programs were built could not be more different.

Stanford made its first appearance in the CWS after 19 years. Oklahoma had played in three consecutive championship finals and had won the last two. The Cardinal had been on the road for 10 days since the regional. On the other hand, their opponents had not left their campus since early May and had not crossed the state borders since April 22. Fatigue was not the only issue. The Sooners, done with their finals since May 12, had been focusing on nothing else but softball. On the other hand, the Cardinal had to balance competition and academics. Keep in mind that the CWS took place the week before their finals.

Fatigue and academic distraction were not the only factors that tipped the scale in favor of Oklahoma. Stanford is a program that recruits student-athletes based on their athletic and academic achievements. Those who get recruited arrive with the expectation that they will receive the best education while playing the sport they love; a Stanford softball player is primarily a student and then also an athlete.

One can argue that the transfer portal has been an advantage for Oklahoma, which had four transfer students (Storako, Sanders, Lee and Brito) in the 10 starters in the championship game against Florida State and the transfer students (Lee, Brito, Torres and Sanders) combined for 36% of the team’s total at-bats in the two games against Stanford? Indeed, student-athletes with difficulty adjusting in their freshman year should have a second opportunity that the portal offers. However, only Sanders was a sophomore from Oklahoma’s transfer students. Is it easier to make the case that students transfer to Oklahoma to meet their academic goals or to add a championship in their resume before a professional career in softball? In 2022 alone, six Sooners (Alo, Aviu, Elam, Johns, Mendes, Saile) were drafted by Women’s Professional Fastpitch (WPF) teams, one of which is based in Oklahoma (Sparks). Both Sorako and Lee, who transferred to Oklahoma as redshirt seniors to play in their final year of eligibility, were drafted by the Oklahoma City Sparks.

Gasso described how her life has become: “I just want to go to Costco and shop and no one care that I’m there and they [the athletes] feel the same. It’s so crazy to see how our lives have changed. The fans in Oklahoma are absolutely fantastic. Fans are fantastic,but it starts to feel like you’re getting smothered a little bit because everybody wants something.” You typically expect to hear those words from the professional super-stars in the NBA or NFL, but not from college softball coaches unless you turn a team with student-athletes into a dynasty with semi-professionals. Therefore, the wave of pressure that the Sooners feel should not come as a surprise. The actual surprise is that Stanford – the only team in the CWS without transfers, just students who are talented in softball – almost came out on top facing the athlete-students despite the uneven playing field.

The freshman who stole the show

Before the postseason, Canady’s stats were incredible. There was never a question of who would win the Freshman of the Year award in 2023. It was also a no-brainer that Canady would have received All-American recognition had it not been for a few matches that she missed due to a back injury that made her ineligible for the award. However, it is almost unthinkable to expect that a freshman playing for a team that had not been in the CWS for almost two decades, who not only not be overwhelmed by the occasion, but embrace the pressure and steal the show.

Watching the Stanford freshman in the pitcher’s circle with a softball that looks like a golf ball in her hand. Canady’s pitches clock in at 72-74 mph, while other top pitchers in college softball throw at 68 mph. She even recorded a pitch of 75 mph. To put things into perspective, the Guinness Book of World Records credits Monica Abbott with the fastest recorded softball pitch ever, reaching 77 mph. In other words, Canady is three mph shy of breaking the world record but throws six mph faster than the other elite pitchers in the nation. However, this is a product of athleticism, amazing genes and work ethic. Canady is not the only one that possesses these three elements; most elite athletes do. What separates generational athletes from elite athletes is their mental strength and competitiveness. Suppose you are under 20 years old and have to go out against the best offensive team in the country on the biggest stage, in a sold-out stadium with more than 12,000 attending in the stands and many more watching on TV. If you would have butterflies in your stomach and your legs would not stop shaking, rest assured you are not the only one.

Canady is a different breed. Under the lights, she turns the pressure into greatness and shines the most. Before the opener, Oklahoma’s best hitters, Coleman and Jennings had played 180 times and were never both struck out. Canady put an end to their streak in the CWS opener. Striking out Jennings three times in the same game is unheard of. However, Canady was 0-2 in counts, one rise ball away from striking out in the semifinal. With Canady, you must be prepared for the unthinkable: from striking out the best hitters in three pitches or three times in the same game to breaking Guinness records. Given that the freshman from Kansas is poised to work on her strength and endurance in the off-season, setting a new Guinness record is within reach. Stanford’s athletic administration better install a velocity radar in Smith Family Stadium before next season.

Canady’s attitude off the field is more remarkable than her performance in the circle. After the CWS opener, everyone praised her for stealing the show, from the media to the coaches. “We knew what we were running into in the way of NiJa, and she has become one of the hardest throwing, ball-moving freshmen I’ve ever seen,” admitted Gasso after the game.

What is music in an athlete’s ears was dismissed by Canady. She pitched lights out, but that was not how she assessed her performance. The freshman from Kansas was genuinely upset and you got the impression that she blamed herself for missing the opportunity to strike Coleman out on a 0-2 count before the RBI hit. “I feel like definitely going back on film trying to see where I could be better, but each game is a learning experience. It can only get better from here. So, I am excited to make the adjustments needed and get back at it tomorrow,” said the freshman in the press conference. At the time, she was leading the nation in ERA at an absurd 0.48 and 11.7 strikeouts per seven innings. As for her strikeout-to-walk ratio of 10.60 (212 to 20), it was a full strikeout better than No. 2, Minnesota senior Autumn Pease (9.41). Yet, she was eager to go to work to perfect her game.

Her final press conference in the CWS was in the same tone of humility and competitive drive. “I think that I can play at this level. Coming in, I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know. We get Oklahoma right off the bat and now I know, for the most part, I can pitch to any team in the nation.”, Canady replied to a question about what she learned about herself and her future, before Allister corrected her: “for the all part”.

She finished the game with a 73% strike percentage (59 strikes in 81 pitches, excluding four of an intentional walk), which is lower than her 79% in the first game but still mind-blowing. She struck out six, allowed only four hits and walked one intentionally. All that, with 220 pitches under her belt in just four days at the time when she stepped in Vawter’s relief.

Canady’s competitive drive is unparalleled in softball. You must look into other sports to draw parallels. Like basketball, another sport she excels in. Kobe Bryant was asked once why he was not smiling when his team won the first two games in the NBA finals and he responded that there was no reason to smile as the job was not finished. Canady’s response to a question about her experience and performance in the CWS and against the Sooners was similar: “Definitely not the outcome we wanted, but we are back in the World Series. I feel that was the goal, we got here and now we have a taste and we’re gonna come back hungry”. “I know I didn’t have my best game but I know next year we can come back and the story can be different.”, she added later.

Her competitive nature makes her think she is at fault every time she does not complete a no-hitter game. Canady sets her bar higher than any individual accolades such as Freshman of the Year award, leading the nation in ERA (0.51) in seven innings or making the CWS All-Tournament Team. Like Vawter, Canady puts her team first. The bar for her was coming out on top against one of the most formidable offensive squads in softball history and lifting the trophy. The job for her was not done and, like the legendary Laker, she could not find anything to smile about. Apparently, the two do not share only the same jersey number (24) but also the so-called ‘mamba mentality’, which separates top athletes from all-time greats.

Vawter has a similar mentality, but we have taken that for granted in the last four years. These two are the main reason why the Cardinal were in a dogfight until the end twice against an offense that annihilated every other pitcher they faced in the CWS. Yet, they both blame themselves for not doing better!

The super-seniors who transcended the program

An article that does close with the legacy that the super-seniors starters leave behind does not do justice to what they have offered to the softball program. Retrospectively, destiny brought Gindlesperger, Schultz and Young to the Farm in 2019 when nobody expected what would follow.

Stanford finished the 2018 season with a 3-21 Pac-12 and 24-31 overall record, a big step forward from the 2017 and 2016 seasons when its record was 19-32, (2-22 Pac-12) and 13-35, (0-24 Pac-12). Back then, the team used to end the season in the second week of May.

However, the three left their indelible mark from the moment they arrived at the Farm. In 2019, Stanford finished with a 33-20 overall record and went 8-13 in Pac-12 play. The 33 wins were the most in a season since 2013, and the winning record was the first for the Card since 2014 (30-25, 5-19 Pac-12). Moreover, it advanced to a regional that had not happened since 2013. 

It was only the beginning. Stanford finished the 2020 campaign at 22-4 overall, completing just over one month of non-conference play before the remainder of the season was shortened due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the season was cut short, it was Gindlesperger’s breakthrough. The center fielder, who averaged .167 as a freshman, was batting .402 when the pandemic hit.

The 2021 season was another step forward for the Cardinal, who finished at 33-22 overall and 9-12 in the Pac-12. Moreover, they advanced to the regional title game for the first time since 2013. But the best was yet to come.

In 2022, the Cardinal posted a 39-22 record and an 11-13 record in Pac-12 play. They picked up the series victory over No. 2 UCLA, No. 10 Arizona State and No. 25 Arizona. The success against highly ranked opponents carried over to the postseason. Stanford won the Tuscaloosa Regional in convincing fashion, beating host and sixth-seeded Alabama, which had a 44-game win streak in the regional round. Stanford appeared in a super regional for the sixth time in its history.

The three super-seniors saved the best for last. In their final season on the Farm, Stanford improved its record to 47-15 and 14-10 in the Pac-12, its fifth-best win total in school history. One must go back to the Pac-10 era to find similar numbers. The last time Stanford won more than 45 games was in 2009 (48-11, 13-8 Pac-10), while the last time it posted more than 14 wins in the conference was in 1998. The CWS appearance was just the third in the program’s history (2001, 2004, 2023). 

Stanford would not have gotten there if it had not been for the contribution of these three, especially in the postseason. They were responsible for almost half of the team’s runs; they combined for 13 of the 30 total runs and 12 of the 35 hits in the regional and super regional. Individually, Gindlesperger was a sniper, hitting 7-for-16 — an unreal .438 batting average. Schultz contributed more than 25% of the team’s putouts (27 of the total 102) and Young more than 20% of the team’s assists (seven of the total 34).

The icing on the cake was the CWS. Gindlesperger skyrocketed her batting average to .538 (7-for-13). Against the Sooners, she hit 4-for-7 (.571). To put things into perspective, Jayda Coleman was 3-for-7 against the Cardinal. After all, these two are the top center fielders in college softball and the only ones who made the CWS All-Tournament Team. Gindlesperger and Schultz produced 60% of the team’s runs (three of the total five). It is fitting to their careers that Schultz recorded the first run and Gindlesperger the first hit in a CWS in the last 19 years for the Cardinal. 

Gindlesperger holds the school’s record in triples (24), finishing her college career with just six errors in five seasons and zero in the last two. Young and Schultz have the most chemistry a shortstop and first baseman can have, which is not surprising given that they have played together more games than any other duo (249). They connect blindfolded. If Young throws from her home in Ohio, Schultz will catch it on her base in Illinois. Young started in every game for five consecutive seasons for a total of 257. Unless another pandemic breaks out, no other Cardinal in the future will ever match her record of starting in all games in five seasons. Schultz and Gindlesperger have posted similar numbers. The first baseman from Illinois appeared in 249 games and started in 238, while the center fielder from Arizona was a starter 232 times in 241 total appearances. It goes without saying that all three were irreplaceable during their time on the Farm.

When Gindlesperger, Schultz and Young arrived on campus for the first time, they joined a team with a losing record. Post-season action was not a topic of discussion. Since then, Stanford has appeared in every NCAA tournament, winning the regional twice and the super regional once. In the CWS, it reached the semifinal. It fought till the end against the No. 1 Oklahoma, which cruised to its third consecutive title after surviving against Stanford. The three super seniors played – and won – their first game on February 8, 2019 against Bradley in Arizona. It took them 1579 days to bring Stanford back to the CWS and earn a place in the pantheon of Stanford softball, leaving behind a championship-caliber team.

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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