Gold: Can freshman phenom NiJaree Canady help Stanford softball pull off a miracle?
The legend of Sisyphus is one of the great ones of Greek mythology, because it’s so easy to picture: A king punished because of his own hubris, forced to push a boulder up a hill, only for it to roll back down, time and time again. It’s about the most futile exercise you can imagine.
Almost like playing the Oklahoma softball team in 2023.
Rarely in the annals of amateur athletics have we seen an entity as soul-crushing as the Sooners. They’ve won an unfathomable 50 straight games and stand an unthinkable 58-1. They boast the best lineup, best pitching staff and best defense in the sport. They are complete like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich is complete. Peanut butter, jelly, bread. Hitting, pitching, fielding. What else is there?
They came to Oklahoma City with a spotless mark against other Women’s College World Series teams, and it’s not like they avoided them. Patty Gasso loaded up the schedule in preparation of a 3rd straight national title. She didn’t know her Sooners would simply flick the competition away. The Sooners are not so much a collection of softball players as they are titans, forming an almost mythological beings.
2023 Oklahoma Sooners Softball by the numbers through the opening round of the WCWS:
• 57-1 W/L record
• 27 wins via run-rule
• 480 runs scored
• 56 runs allowed
• 112 home runs
• 33 shutouts
• 17 errors
• 433 K's thru 358 innings
• 49-game win streak
— Seth Oliveras (@SethOliveras) June 1, 2023
And that’s what made what NiJaree Canady did on Thursday so special.
And it’s what makes Monday’s WCWS showdown between Oklahoma and Stanford so exciting.
Watching the Stanford freshman in the pitcher’s circle on Thursday, with a softball that looks like a golf ball in her hand, you see all the makings of a conquering hero.
David probably would’ve loved her rise ball against Goliath. Hector could’ve used her sidespin against Achilles at Troy.
She took the ball and stared down the baddest team in the land, allowing 2 runs (1 earned) on 4 hits while striking out 7 Sooners in 5 innings. She struck out Jayda Coleman, Tiare Jennings, Kinzie Hansen and Alyssa Brito — Oklahoma’s quartet of .400 hitters — at least once. She sniped Jennings, the No. 15 hitter in the nation, twice. It took until the 5th inning for the Sooners to break through, as a Coleman single with 2 runners on was compounded by a throwing error, scoring both Rylie Boone and Avery Hodge. Oklahoma won 2-0 — just the 4th time this season the Sooners were held to 2 or fewer runs.
Canady was ultimately outdueled by the terrific Jordy Bahl, who moved to 19-1 with a 5-hit, 11-strikeout shutout, but for a freshman to shine on that stage against the unquestioned alphas of college softball? It was, in a word, stunning, drawing high praise from Gasso.
“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,” Gasso said after the game. “You may have seen us look like we were really struggling, and at times we were just trying to figure this out. A lot of foul balls, a lot of foul balls, but we made her throw over 60 pitches up to like the third inning, and the goal was to just keep fighting and get her to keep throwing, maybe tire her out. It’s hot out there.
“I mean, there’s strategies, we’ve had so many different strategies to go up with and try to make something happen.”
When a coach like Gasso is talking about throwing the whole book at you, that says something, particularly when she’s talking about a true freshman.
But Canady is no ordinary freshman.
She leads the nation in ERA at an absurd 0.48. She leads the nation with 11.7 strikeouts per 7 innings. Her strikeout-to-walk ratio of 10.60 (212 to 20) is a full strikeout better than No. 2, Minnesota senior Autumn Pease (9.41). She teams with star senior Alana Vawter to form one of the most dangerous duos in the game.
This may sound like hyperbole, but this is up there with the great freshman seasons of all time, regardless of sport.
But she needs her defining moment.
Might that come on Monday?
Of course it was Canady who put the Cardinal in this position in the first place, hurling a 1-hit, no-walk, 9-strikeout shutout against Pac-12 rival Washington in an elimination game duel with fellow freshman phenom Ruby Meylan on Sunday.
2023 TUCCI/NFCA Division I Freshman of the Year NiJaree Canady did not have a single 3-ball count today and went ahead 0-2 against 13 of the 25 batters she faced.
Washington was held to a season-low 1 hit and were shut out for just the 3rd time this season. pic.twitter.com/uc5ozECiyu
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) June 4, 2023
It was yet another gem in a season of them.
“I don’t think you expect anyone to put together the year that she had,” Stanford coach Jessica Allister said. “I think it’s unrealistic to put those expectations on anyone. But Kylie’s not wrong, the fall when we faced her over and over and over again, it looked a lot like this. Actually, Jessica Merchant, who works a lot with our hitters, I thought was about to tear her hair out. I think with every game that she continues to do it against other people, it makes her happier and happier.
“So we knew she was special. Also, we knew she was special when we were recruiting her. When I called NiJa on September 1st, I told her, I think you’re the best pitcher in the country. It wasn’t a “let’s bring you in here and bring a couple other pitchers in here and see who says yes.” She was my first phone call, and I told her, I think you’re the best pitcher in the country, and I think that I have proven to be correct.”
And she’ll have another chance — and maybe another — against the mighty Sooners on Monday.