Stanford softball just getting started after magical season ends at Women's College World Series
Stanford's dream season is over but it didn't go down without a whimper.
The Cardinal brought No. 1 Oklahoma to the brink in the Women's College World Series semifinals, forcing extra innings and even having a few opportunities to be a walk-off winner.
They couldn't come through with the timely hit they needed to pull off the upset, but they proved they can go toe-to-toe with the two-time defending national champions.
"I think that could have been a championship game," said Stanford head coach Jessica Allister. "I think that could be a championship best-of-three series. But just incredibly proud of the work we put together...and it's just been a joy of a group to coach. I love them all, and I'm incredibly proud of them."
This season was the latest step of what's been a steady climb for the Cardinal under Allister, who returned to coach her alma mater in 2018. Stanford reached the NCAA Tournament in 2021 for the first time in six years, advanced to Super Regionals in 2022 and punched its ticket to Oklahoma City this year for the first time since 2004.
Allister knew the Cardinal could compete at this level because she's seen it. As a student-athlete, she twice led Stanford to the WCWS, both times finishing as the national runner-up.
"We didn't come here to lose, but the goal is to end your season in Oklahoma City, and to get Stanford back here and to compete on this stage is very, very gratifying," she said. "When I took the job, I took the job because I believed that Stanford should compete for championships."
While the Cardinal won't hoist the trophy this time, the future has never been brighter on The Farm.
For one, Stanford has a budding superstar in freshman NiJaree Canady, the first Pac-12 pitcher to lead the nation in ERA since Amanda Freed (UCLA) in 2001.
Canady and her relentless riseball swept the nation with an iconic World Series performance. Her stats were staggering:
- 18.2 innings
- 9 hits
- 3 earned runs
- 25 strikeouts
Even more impressive is that most of her work came against the nation's No. 1 offense.
"Coming in, I didn't know what to expect," Canady said. "We get Oklahoma right off the bat, and now I know I can — for the most part — pitch to any team in the nation."
The experience will help the humble Cardinal hurler, who said she needs to improve her endurance this offseason so she can pitch deeper into games.
"We got here, that was a taste, and now we're going to come back hungry," she said.
Rejoining Canady on The Farm next season will be key bats like Aly Kaneshiro, Kylie Chung and River Mahler and maybe even All-American pitcher Alana Vawter, who has a fifth year of eligibility remaining. If she indeed does return to Stanford, it will arguably have the best 1-2 punch in the country.
Vawter has made some sacrifices for Canady to shine, but she said watching the freshman's rise "has been the coolest thing ever."
"That's what makes them special," Allister said. "It's not easy as a senior to come in and all of a sudden have your workload change just a little bit and to share the stage, and that's what makes AV one of the most amazing women that I've ever been around. The care that she takes of the entire pitching staff sets the tone, and you can hear it in her answer there. That's why we were able to do what we've done, and that's what makes our program what it is.
"And then as far as NiJa over here, walking away thinking there's something I can be better at, that is unique and uncommon. They are the backbone of our program and I couldn't be more proud. Not just of them all year, but their performance here and the people that they are. You got a glimpse of it today."
The school sees it too.
Allister ended her final press conference in Oklahoma City by thanking Stanford's administration for its support, adding that the Cardinal will soon be building a new $50 million softball stadium (though the school has not formally announced any plans).
It's the kind of investment that will help solidify Stanford's place on the national stage.
"Part of my hiring process was a conversation with our athletic director Bernard (Muir) that if we're going to do this, let's do it, and this is what it looks like," Allister said. "It's going to be beautiful and I'm thankful for that because this doesn't happen without that. You've got to be in alignment with your administration, and Stanford's all in. Excited about the future. Excited about the educational opportunity that we can provide to our student-athletes. Excited about the national platform that the Stanford brand gives student-athletes. It's just a really magical place, and I'm really happy to be the leader of this program."