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Freshman NiJaree Canady Has Near-Perfect Start For Stanford

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(Photo by Karan Hickey)

NiJaree Canady was sitting with her teammates at a hotel in Georgia when she heard her name called.

“Pitching, NiJa. NiJa, you’re pitching.”

The stage was set. A matchup with the Georgia Bulldogs. A squad that just last season hit 107 home runs, 87 doubles and had a team batting average of .323. For the freshman hurler out of Topeka, Kan., it was quite the assignment.

“I got excited and then nervous again,” said Canady. “And I just remembered, ‘take a deep breath, it’s going to be okay. I’ve been pitching all my life, it’s just another game.’”

She passed the assignment with flying colors. More than that, she pitched a complete-game shutout for the Stanford Cardinal, holding the Bulldogs to only three hits and striking out seven batters. Overall, during that eventful weekend, she struck out 16 batters in 14 innings and did not allow a single run, earning her Pac-12 Freshman of the Week and Pitcher of the Week honors. Her journey, however, was only just beginning.

Fast forward six more appearances and Canady still does not have an earned run average—it sits at zero. In 44 total innings, the freshman has only allowed nine hits, one extra-base hit, no home runs and has struck out 79 batters. She has thrown two no-hitters—her second, an 18-strikeout performance against Villanova—and just recently earned Pac-12 Pitcher of the Week honors for the second time this season.

When asked what the secret is to her success, Canady was quick to give her coaches and defense most of the credit.

“I owe it to my coaches and my defense,” said Canady. “It’s easy to pitch when you have an incredible defense behind you. I say this with all confidence, I think we have the best defensive team in the country. It’s easy to pitch when I know they have my back.”

Indeed, the Cardinal have only committed six errors so far this season and have not given up a single unearned run. Their adherence to the fundamentals and determination to not make mistakes, according to Canady, goes back to a quote from head coach Jessica Allister.

“She says this I feel like at every defensive practice, ‘softball is just a big game of catch,’” said Canady. “And I think that’s truly what it is. If you can do the little things like playing catch, laying down a bunt, those little things are what turn you into a great ball team.”

In support of that statement, one has to look no further than last season. After going 11-13 in Pac-12 play, the Cardinal earned an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament and were sent to the Tuscaloosa Regional. Since the dawn of super regionals in 2005, Alabama had not missed a single one. After winning the first two games in the regional, including a 6-0 shutout of the Crimson Tide, it came down to a final game against Alabama to advance to a super regional for the first time in 11 years. The end result was another 6-0 victory for Stanford. The Cardinal committed only three errors the entire weekend and allowed only one earned run.

Canady watched the games with her family in their living room in Kansas and that experience only confirmed for her that she had made the right decision.

“I remember at that moment I just couldn’t wait to get to campus to just keep building upon what my teammates and coaches already started here,” said Canady.

So far for the Cardinal this season, that is exactly what has happened. The team is 19-2 overall, anchored by a starting rotation that also includes junior Regan Krause, who has an ERA of 2.65 and senior Alana Vawter, who has continued her winning ways in the circle after striking out a career-high 164 batters last season.

The offense this season for Stanford has also been key to the Cardinal's success. Led by freshman River Mahler, who leads the team in batting average (.446) and ranks fourth in Division I softball among freshmen in hits (29), the Cardinal have a balanced attack this year, hitting .311 as a team.

In total, it’s a team that is much more than just their performance on the field.

“We’re definitely crazy,” said Canady. “Crazy, energetic and loving. I think that sums us up pretty well.”

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2023 NCAA Freshman Of The Year: NiJaree Canady

Stanford's NiJaree Canady is Softball America's NCAA Freshman of the Year for the 2023 college softball season.

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