WCWS: Stanford phenom NiJaree Canady takes softball's main stage

Stanford freshman NiJaree Canady leads the country in ERA and strikeout rate. Brett Rojo-USA TODAY Sports

OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. -- NiJaree Canady isn't much for moral victories. After No. 9 Stanford's 2-0 loss to No. 1 Oklahoma at the Women's College World Series, the freshman pitcher sat stone-faced in the postgame news conference, even as she was showered with praise by her coach, Jessica Allister, right after Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso and her players did the same.

Despite the loss, Canady, who was named the National Freshman of the Year by the National Fastpitch Coaches' Association on Tuesday, became the breakout star of this year's WCWS.

She held the nation's best offense -- the Sooners bat .372 as a team, lead the country in homers and average 8.39 runs per game -- to just two runs, with just one earned. She held OU without an extra-base hit for the first time in 105 games. She held the Sooners to their fewest runs scored in an NCAA tournament game since the 2019 WCWS, when Alabama beat them 1-0. She made a lasting impression on the most decorated coach in softball history.

"She has become one of the hardest-throwing, ball-moving freshmen I've ever seen," Gasso said after the game.

A year ago, Canady was in Topeka, Kansas, going 21-0 to lead her high school to its second straight state championship, the only two in the school's history. She was the Kansas Softball Gatorade Player of the Year each of the past two seasons, and was also a two-time all-state basketball player ranked as a four-star forward recruit before forgoing her senior year to prepare for college.

Canady entered the WCWS as the country's ERA leader, allowing just eight earned runs in 116 1/3 innings for an ERA of 0.48. On Thursday, in front of 12,379 fans, the third-largest crowd in WCWS history, she pitched five innings and had seven strikeouts to become just the fifth player in Stanford program history to record 200 K's in a single season, forcing an Oklahoma team on a 48-game winning streak, the longest in the sport's history, to scrap and claw and implore the numerous Sooners fans in the crowd to get into the game.

"I didn't know what to expect going in, but the atmosphere was incredible," Canady said. "To be able to play in front of this crowd, it was something unbelievable."

For Canady, there was no celebrating. Just a determined look and a vow to do it again Friday in Stanford's elimination game against No. 5 Alabama (7 p.m. ET, ESPN), if needed.

It's been a whirlwind season for Canady, including being sidelined for four weeks early in the year with shoulder soreness. But after she helped Stanford reach Oklahoma City for the first time since 2004, Allister said Canady was the obvious choice to face the Sooners, despite having All-American senior Alana Vawter available as well.

"NiJa is spectacular against right-handed hitters," Allister said. "[Oklahoma is] righty heavy, and they usually have seven righties in the lineup. I think coming into the game, NiJa's batting average against the righties was .083, .063, something like that, so we're going to give her that opportunity. I'm going to pick her against a righty-heavy lineup all day."

"She has become one of the hardest-throwing, ball-moving freshmen I've ever seen." Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso on Stanford pitcher NiJaree Canady

OU center fielder Jayda Coleman had an idea of what makes Canady so effective.

"I think she really just wanted ... she wanted to throw 75 [mph]," Coleman said, laughing. "She was really starting ahead. She was getting strikes."

The velocity was a concern for Gasso.

"When I saw our matchup, I'm like, OK, oh no, let's go," Gasso said. "Let's get the machine cranking up. Let's grease it up, make sure it's working. They can throw that hard."

Gasso said the Sooners had to try to force Canady to battle in hopes of wearing her down and using their home-state elements to their advantage. Coleman and Tiare Jennings worked Canady to 10 and 11 pitches, respectively, in their first at-bats. Eventually, the strategy worked.

"You may have seen us look like we were really struggling, and at times we were just trying to figure this out," Gasso said. "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."

Eventually, Canady reached 99 pitches, struggling to finish off Riley Boone and Coleman with two strikes in the fifth. Boone's single on Canady's 93rd pitch put two on with two out, and three pitches later Coleman ripped an RBI single to left that broke a scoreless tie.

Meanwhile, Canady's counterpart, Jordy Bahl, last year's NFCA Freshman of the Year, shut out the Cardinal, striking out 11.

"I thought we had our opportunities," Allister said. "When I look down at the stat sheet, [we had] seven left on base. I thought we had the right hitters up at the right time and just didn't necessarily come away with it. I thought [Bahl] got tough in big situations, got some huge strikeouts. I thought we had our opportunities."

And Gasso exhaled after the machine survived everything Canady threw at it.

"That was probably one of the most stressful, struggling first games we've had that I can remember in a long time," she said.