Titan of Topeka: NiJaree Canady rises through the ranks

Oct. 9, 2023, 10:32 p.m.

“Hold on, can you give me five minutes? I’m signing balls.”

During a Topeka summer, sophomore pitcher NiJaree Canady was at her aunt’s house, hosting an impromptu motivational session for her cousin’s 14U baseball team. She had agreed to an interview 30 minutes prior, but had gotten held up by teenagers eager to receive wisdom from Stanford’s ace pitcher. 

The session ended, but the kids wanted autographs — something she has gotten used to. She had to start practicing her signature. (It used to be terrible, she said.)

The 2023 Women’s College World Series finished with a resounding proclamation to the softball world — Canady is a superstar, and she is just getting started. In only her first season of college softball, she led the nation in earned run average (ERA) and strikeouts per seven innings, a feat never before seen from a first-year player.

With a Freshman of the Year award in tow, Canady also led the Stanford Cardinal into the first WCWS berth in nearly a decade, and went toe-to-toe with the transfer-laden behemoth Oklahoma. 

It’s not absurd to call her a prodigy. But when she started out?

“For the first couple of years, I can’t remember being that good,” Canady said. “I just had no accuracy whatsoever.” 

Canady did not start her diamond days on top of the mound but rather behind the plate — she was the starting catcher on the local baseball team. Spurred on by her football coach, Canady enlisted alongside her brother BJ Canady, two years her junior. 

Yes, that’s right. Baseball team. Football coach. 

Canady’s father, Bruce Canady, took a no-holds-barred approach toward his children’s athletic endeavors. A former college football player at Washburn University, he passed down to and nourished a love of sports in Canady and BJ.

“I hit a home run off her riseball once,” BJ Canady was eager to point out.

This drive did not come from just anywhere — Bruce Canady is both the mastermind and the motor behind the Canady kids.

From giving six-year-old Canady and her four-year-old brother the smackdown at Connect 4, to pitting them against each other in every possible setting, Bruce Canady ensured his children had a competitive edge.

“They can’t play checkers together. I don’t know where they get it from” he said. Katherine Canady, Bruce’s wife and the children’s mother, was quick to interject: “Oh, I know. You should hear them when they play cornhole.”

According to Katherine Canady, “Bruce still practices outside to make sure they can’t beat him.”

This competitive spirit eventually led Canady to softball, and she opted to play with the Topeka Queens — where she once played a different sport on the same field. While she enjoyed both baseball and softball, the six-foot pitcher eventually chose to pursue softball full-time. 

Her preferred position was catcher until an older pitcher caught her eye at a local tournament. Her dad asked if she wanted to be a pitcher. It seems fun, she replied.

So her dad got her a pink rubber ball, and in their basement she pitched, pitched and pitched some more. 

Her catching days continued for some time, and she was a phenom. But when Canady caught and hit home runs like a superstar at one tournament and her partner on the mound received MVP instead, she decided to switch positions. She just couldn’t stand not being recognized for her play. 

Canady’s tutelage gradually moved beyond the garage, and she began taking lessons with Roxy Moran, a private pitching coach in Topeka. By the end of their first session, Moran had sensed something special. 

“If she sticks with this softball thing, they’ll talk about her for a long, long time,” Moran said.

Moran, a former pitcher at California State University, Fullerton, could envision her road to success. 

“When I first got her, she was physically strong,” Moran said. “She relied on her power, and I said, that’s not going away. We’re only going to build on that. But the day we can learn the spin and the fluidity of the pitch … When she really developed that, that’s when she became next level.”

A self-proclaimed teacher by feel, Moran implemented all sorts of methods involving mental preparation (including pitching blind) and made up phrases to instruct a pitch. Her riseball analogy: “Like scooping sand and tucking it over the shoulder.”

She worked with Canady to build her pitching repertoire, adding a curveball here and screwball there. Canady, who Moran described as not only a quick study but also an unusually driven athlete, improved rapidly.

What also contributed to her growth was travel ball. Since eighth grade, Canady played on the 18U circuit for the Louisville Lady Sluggers — the best team in the nation.

As an eighth grader, however, she was over matched. The opposing pitchers’ riseballs would stoop below her shins to above her head. Her usual fastballs weren’t strikeouts.

“Back then, I just wanted to play my age. I wanted to hit the ball all the time. But looking back on it, I think I did so good because I was playing against older girls. It forced me to get good fast,” Canady said. 

In her first season with the Sluggers, Canady was put in all sorts of different age brackets, from 14U to 16U to 18U, in an effort to build up her confidence.

“NiJa would play with us in one game, then I would shove her down to the 16U team … to get a bunch of looks,” said Jim Huecker, coach of the Lady Sluggers. “She’d play, then they’d move her back up … Gosh dang, I think the kid played 11 games in one weekend.”

Despite Canady’s initial wishes, her competitive spirit won out. After a few weeks of the back-and-forth switching, Huecker told Canady to go from the 18U game to play with the 16U team. She refused: “Coach, I don’t want to go down there. This is my team.”

And that was it. “We never looked back after that,” Huecker said.

Canady, who grew after each year of competition against the older girls, finally felt the gap close. By sophomore year, those riseballs were not nearly as high. Those fastballs — and everything else Moran taught her — were striking out.

But of all NiJa’s pitches, her riseball was the most dominant. A pitch that, if things went her way freshman year, would’ve never been in her pitching arsenal.

“I was so over it,” NiJa said. 

She had been practicing for nine months, three times a week, 45 minutes a day, and she never even got close. Moran, who had trouble with the riseball herself as a pitcher, didn’t have a quirky analogy on deck this time.

On month nine, NiJa asked Moran if she could just rely on her other pitches. She was dominating other girls without the riseball, and had other strong pitches in her disposal — strong enough to earn her D1 offers from local schools like KU and Mizzou.

But Moran responded: “How good do you wanna be?”

Two weeks later, Canady got it, putting so much spin on the ball that it rose over her dad’s head — flying, ascending to a place he just could not reach. 

The last two years of high school were nothing short of spectacular for Canady. She won MVP of a regional tournament as a junior, and led her high school to their first state championship and then a second during her junior and senior year, tallying only one loss during that time. 

“I knew early on I wanted to be on the biggest stage. I wanted to be one of the best pitchers in the nation,” Canady said. “It wasn’t like an expectation of mine, but if I didn’t get there I knew how disappointed I would be.”

As she toiled away under Moran’s tutelage, she reminded herself: “If I pitch like this, I’m not making the World Series.”

What exactly drove her? She doesn’t know. “I just wanted to do something great,” she said.

Canady came into Stanford as the 11th ranked player in the nation — but pitching coach Tori Nyberg knew that she was a must-have player. So much so that she attended nearly all of Canady’s games. It got to the point where when parents spotted Nyberg, they would joke, “Here comes the stalker again.”

Thanks to the efforts of Nyberg and coach Jessica Alister, Canady selected Stanford in her junior year: an anomaly in softball recruiting, where girls sometimes make their decisions as early as seventh grade. 

Stanford, with its academic pedigree and unrelenting dedication to her, won on the Canady sweepstakes. Their reward was imminent. Canady came in and immediately established herself as a force on the team. By the first or second practice, she was striking everybody out.

“It was like, wow, that’s insane. She’s doing this as a freshman,” said catcher and Golden Glove Award winner Aly Kaneshiro. She says it’s easy to forget her class year. 

“She’s like the sweetest girl ever. But she will intimidate you. You see her on the mound and you’re like, ‘Dang, she is scary’.”

It’s not just her presence that’s frightening. Each and every one of her coaches attests to her will: “You would never know if she wasn’t 110% that day. You wouldn’t know,” Moran said. “She’s just not afraid to work.”

“I don’t think she ever wavered,” Huecker said. Canady was only further motivated by challenges, Huecker said.

“She has the perfect mentality for a pitcher. Couldn’t ask for better,” Nyberg said.

But her real talent lies in her will to improve. 

“She’ll be better the next time she sees you,” Huecker said. “NiJa’s always been a kid that has rised to the occasion no matter what it was.”

After taking the 2023 World Series by storm, there is only one obstacle left: the championship. And, she’s raring to go — with the school that poured so much time and love into her.

“If I’m winning the World Series, I want to win with Stanford written across my chest,” Canady said. 

Watch out, Oklahoma: NiJaree Canady’s coming back better than before and if you’re not careful, she’ll stomp right past you.

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