Stanford softball defies logic and aims for the Pac-12 trophy

No. 6 Stanford (42-12, 17-7 Pac-12) completed its regular season play this past weekend against No. 25 Oregon (28-18. 13-10 Pac-12). Not long ago, the final Pac-12 game marked the end of the season for the program. However, under head coach Jessica Allister ’04 the team has kept improving every year, turning a sub-500 program into a championship contender. Before we discuss what lies ahead, let’s rewind to put things into perspective.

Roster teardown

After an epic presence in Oklahoma City for its first College World Series (CWS) in the last 19 years, where Stanford proved that it was the only program that could dethrone the defending back-to-back champions Oklahoma, the Cardinal earned everyone’s respect to the point that they entered the 2024 season ranked No. 3 in the nation. 

But in reality, the future did not look bright at all, as the backbone of last year’s championship caliber team was gone. Super-seniors Taylor Gindlesperger ’22 M.A. ’23,  Emily Schultz ’22 and Emily Young ’22 finished five seasons in a Cardinal uniform, while Sydney Steele ’23 announced that she would not compete the following year, and Alana Vawter ’23 did not continue as a graduate student at Stanford.

Coach Allister had a challenging puzzle to solve. How do you build a team from scratch, keep the momentum going, and live up to the expectations that her program has created over the years? 

One would expect that after the enormous recent success, it would be easier to utilize the transfer portal. However, while many softball students consider the Farm a desired destination to continue their careers, Stanford’s academic standards make it difficult for them to transfer in. Sophomore infielder Taryn Kern became the first and only transfer student in the program’s history.

Juggling experimentation and time

Unlike last season, uncertainty reigned across the field for the Cardinal going into the season, as every position other than the catcher, pitcher, and right-fielder was up for grabs. To put things into perspective, Shultz and Young played 249 games together, more than any other duo in the program’s history. A comparison between them and freshman first baseman Ava Gall, a catcher in high school, and sophomore shortstop River Mahler, a second baseman in her first year, is unfair. 

Similarly, sophomore Emily Jones, who started in just 33 games as an infielder last year, became the starting center fielder. She replaced Gindlesperger, the record-holder in triples who had committed zero errors in the last two years of her career and was arguably the best in the nation at her position along with Jayda Coleman. However, it took Gindlesperger five years to improve her .167 batting average to an astounding .538 in the CWS.

The bottom line is that you cannot buy experience, and Allister knew that. The best she could do is experiment and deliberately take risks to expose weaknesses and make adjustments to fix them. 

Embracing challenges and defying the logic

Allister remained unphased by the headwinds and doubled down on her recipe of success: Harder work in the fall, stronger competition early in the season and more experimentation in the regular season to find out who to trust at crunch time. 

The last series against Oregon is a good example of experimentation. Instead of starting star sophomore pitcher Nijaree Canady or senior pitcher Regan Krause, freshman Alyssa Houston started in the circle on Friday and junior Kylie Chung on Saturday. This was a strategic move by Allister in order to find a reliable third starter for postseason play.

Moreover, sophomore Kyra Chan started at left field and was substituted by junior Dani Hayes in all three matches. Although this approach is not helpful for regular season records, it will pay dividends in the postseason. 

All things considered, Stanford softball has performed a miracle so far. Last season, the team finished the regular season with an impressive win percentage of  76.5% overall (39-12) and 58% in Pac-12 play (14-10). In 2024, that record improved to 78% (42-12) and 71% (17-7) respectively. Putting it simply, setting the best regular season record and the only one with 40+ wins in the last 15 years defies any logic.

Eyes on the Pac-12 hardware

This coming weekend, Stanford will host the highly anticipated Pac-12 tournament. The Cardinal come into the tournament as the No. 2 seed, just behind UCLA (34-10, 17-4 Pac-12). The excitement is palpable, mirroring the high expectations for the Cardinal.

The action kicks off on Thursday against No. 7 seed California (36-16, 9-13 Pac-12). If they win, the team will face either Oregon or Utah (32-19, 10-13 Pac-12) in Friday’s semi-final. In addition, the Cardinal will not have to face UCLA until the conference final.

While it will not be easy, the prospect of lifting the trophy in front of a home crowd is undeniably within reach, adding a sweet touch to an already spectacular Pac-12 season.