PALO ALTO, Calif. — On a steamy Thursday afternoon at Stanford’s Smith Family Stadium, every Cardinal player and coach not on the field stands against the dugout rail, shouting encouragement at someone. Including, between every pitch, a chorus of “Yeah, NiJa!”

NiJa is Stanford pitcher NiJaree Canady, a 6-foot sophomore, who finds herself in a bind against rival Cal. She began the top of the fifth inning with a walk, a passed ball and a single. Now, the Bears have executed a double steal to pull within 4-2. There are no outs and a runner at second. It’s a 2-2 count.

But on her 89th pitch of the afternoon, Canady unleashes a searing rise ball to strike out leadoff batter Lagi Quiroga swinging. Canady smiles and exchanges an excited clap with shortstop River Mahler.

And then, in an instant, the inning is over, with Canady notching another strikeout and a two-pitch groundout in the eventual Pac-12 tournament win.

With the NCAA Tournament opening this week, college softball has steadily increased in popularity over the past decade. Viewership for the Women’s College World Series finals reached a record 1.85 million viewers in 2021 and notably passed the Men’s CWS championship with 1.6 million viewers in 2022. The WCWS has reached at least 1 million viewers in each of its last four seasons (it did not air in 2020), and some believe the sport may be on the verge of a women’s basketball-like breakout.

A handful of recent stars – Alabama’s Montana Fouts, Oklahoma’s Jocelyn Alo, Tennessee’s Kiki Molloy – have captivated audiences over those 10 days in Oklahoma City. Still, the last softball player to transcend into the mainstream sports world was arguably Arizona pitcher Jennie Finch more than 20 years ago.

Canady, a Topeka, Kansas, native and star pitcher with 256 strikeouts in 168.2 innings and a 0.50 ERA, could be that generational player.

“NiJaree’s extremely competitive. I think she might be the face of college softball right now for that reason,” said Reese Atwood, the top hitter for No. 1 Texas who in February slammed one of five home runs hit against Canady this season. “She’s one of those standout players that just everyone knows her name in the game.”

Canady burst on the national scene as a freshman at last year’s WCWS, where she struck out Oklahoma star Tiare Jennings on consecutive at-bats, unleashing her now-familiar fist pump and howl after both.

“I feel like I show my emotion a lot on the mound,” said Canady. “Especially if it’s a good battle.”

She then closed out a 2-0 upset of Alabama, threw a one-hit shutout with nine strikeouts against Washington and helped the Cardinal take the No. 1 seed Sooners to extra innings before falling to the eventual champs a second time.

Now, a year later, as the eighth-seeded Cardinal begin their quest to return to Oklahoma City, members of the softball community mention Canady alongside the all-time greats. In particular, because of her rare ability to combine velocity (she was clocked at 75 mph in last year’s WCWS) with sorcery. Her rise ball – a pitch with backspin that appears headed to the strike zone, only to rise as it breaks – is virtually unhittable.

“I honestly don’t know if I’ve ever seen (a rise ball) like hers in my whole life,” said Stanford pitching coach Tori Nyberg, a Cardinal pitcher in the early 2000s. “Monica Abbott is in a class of her own, but in terms of the velocity, she’s the only person I can think to compare to hers.”

Abbott, a four-time All-American at Tennessee from 2004-07 and NCAA career strikeout leader, holds the Guinness World Record for fastest softball pitch at 77 mph. She predicts Canady will break it.

“NiJa is already throwing as fast as I was as a pro,” said Abbott, now an ESPN analyst. “Her limit does not exist. I think she could potentially reach 80 (mph).

“I don’t know — can NiJa be the Caitlin Clark of softball? I kind of believe she can.”

When Patty Gasso arrived as Oklahoma’s head softball coach in 1995, her team spilled into the first row of bleachers at home games. Pushed to a public park, the entire roster could only fit into the dugout once the school opened Marita Hynes Field three years later.

That’s why the yard sign outside Oklahoma’s new, $48 million Love’s Field advertising recreational softball at that same public park is so telling. It’s a reminder of where college softball once was, and a sign of how far the sport has come.

“Every day we come out when there’s a crowd, it’s still a wow moment for us. We’re still trying to get used to this,” said Gasso, whose No. 2 seeded Sooners are playing for their fourth consecutive national title this postseason. “I think everyone is just in disbelief, to be honest.”

Instead of overflowing into the bleachers, Oklahoma’s roster nearly spills onto the field as players lean over the dugout fence chanting. When Oklahoma’s leadoff hitter steps into the box, every fan stands, points to the air and slowly chants “OOO-U” like during kickoff at a football game. For a regular-season home series in April, attendance tops 4,100 at each game, but that’s not a surprise. The program beat its single-season attendance record (43,647 across 30 games in 2018) in just 11 home dates this season.

Gasso describes playing at Love’s Field, the largest on-campus softball facility in the country, as “more overwhelming” than at Hall of Fame Stadium, recently renamed Devon Park, the home of the WCWS. And atmospheres like this one are popping up nationally. Northwestern and Stanford are building new homes, while Devon Park recently underwent renovations to expand its capacity to 13,000. Florida State, the 2021 and 2023 WCWS runner-up, made $1.5 million worth of upgrades to the Seminole Softball Complex before last season, funded exclusively by booster donations. Simultaneously, new programs at Duke and Clemson, which started in 2017 and 2020, respectively, jumped to relevancy.

When the NCAA staged its first softball tournament in 1982, the sport was predominantly a West Coast fixation. It remained that way for two-plus decades, with either a California school or Arizona winning 20 of the first 23 championships. In that first year, automatic berths were granted only to the Big Eight and Western Collegiate Athletic Association, but as more conferences sponsored college softball, AQs increased. By 2003, every eligible conference nationwide received an automatic berth to the expanded 64-team bracket.

“I was the loudest person that said, ‘Crappy idea. We need the best teams in the postseason,’” said Sue Enquist, UCLA’s seven-time national champion head coach from 1989-2006. “They’re like, ‘No, we’ve got to build the sport nationally.’

“Fast forward to 2005. Carol Hutchins and her Michigan team came and upset us in the finals. And for the first time ever, you have a snow belt team win the championship. Now, all the big schools in those eastern conferences, SEC, ACC are like, ‘Sh–, we can win!’ And the sport exploded.”

As the sport spread nationally, so did the talent. Canady is a prime example, ranking as the No. 11 recruit in the Class of 2022, per recruiting ranking site Extra Innings Softball. Last year, EIS coined the Kansas City region as an emerging hotbed for college pitchers, with Canady as one of the top products.

“I love that NiJa represents a region of our country in Kansas for so many more fans,” said Jessica Mendoza, a former outfielder at Stanford and current MLB broadcaster at ESPN. “Forever it was California, Texas and Florida, those were where every player came from.”

With that comes increased parity. After revealing this season’s postseason bracket, Division I softball committee chairman Kurt McGuffin said parity in the sport is “gaining ground” and will continue to make the job of the selection committee more challenging than before.

In the 2024 season, 307 Division I softball teams competed (296 full members with 11 transitioning from lower divisions) compared to 245 teams in 2000 and 143 teams in 1982.

“I’ve always been proud that I’ve been able to actually live through the growth of the sport,” said former Arizona coach Mike Candrea, the winningest coach in college softball history. “And the sport is absolutely still climbing.”

A big part of that climb was more exposure.

When former Stanford infielder and current Pac-12 Network broadcaster Jenna Becerra played from 2008-11, her parents followed most of her games on a website that tracked the play-by-play using stick figures. “I hit lefty and righty, and they never knew which side of the plate I was hitting on,” she said.

A dozen years later, ESPN platforms aired nearly 3,200 regular-season NCAA Division I softball games in 2024. Viewership of the regular season is up 25 percent from 10 years ago, and this was the most-watched season since 2015. All this comes during a season that competes with the MLB and postseasons in the NHL and NBA.

The early days of college softball’s media partnership with ESPN shaped its format and pushed the sport’s executives to be forward-thinking when it came to rule changes, Enquist said.

Need more hitting? The NCAA Rules Committee agreed to move back the mound. Need to see the ball better? They made it yellow. And when all that worked, former ESPN VP of programming and acquisitions Carol Stiff asked, “Why don’t we do best of three?” So, the sport replaced its championship game with a three-game series in 2005.

“There was a sense of trust and expertise,” Stiff said of those postseason rule meetings. “One hundred percent of everyone that was in that room wanted to grow the game and do what’s good for the game.”

Although the length of games has increased slightly in recent years, college softball is historically fast-moving. An action clock holds the pitcher, catcher and batter responsible for keeping the flow. This season, the time for the pitcher to begin their motion after receiving the ball was reduced from 25 to 20 seconds, while the batter and catcher have to be in position to play with at least 10 seconds left.

“It’s really easy to become a softball fan once you start paying attention,” said Stanford coach Jessica Allister. “It’s a fun sport to watch, it’s fast-paced, the players are athletic, there are big plays, big moments, there’s great energy, there’s great cohesion.

“And I think the more often we can get people to tune in one time, they keep coming back.”

Average attendance at the WCWS has also seen a steady rise. The 2023 series averaged 12,290 fans across nine sessions, a nearly 30 percent increase from 10 years ago and an 86 percent increase from the first WCWS in Oklahoma City in 1990.

“By the time you get to the Women’s College World Series, not only is everything televised, hundreds of games have been showcased to lead up to that moment,” said Mendoza, “(so you have a really good idea) who the players are that are going to be there.”

And it’s those players who hold the keys to the sport’s next breakthrough.

UCLA shortstop Maya Brady always wanted to play college softball. She remembers feeling giddy before her mom took her to her first UCLA game; Maureen Brady covered Maya’s room in blue and gold decorations before they went.

Sports ran in Maya’s blood. Maureen was an All-American pitcher at Fresno State and Maya is the niece of two-time World Series champion Kevin Youkilis and seven-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady. Maya quickly jumped onto the college softball map, named freshman player of the year in 2020 and repeating as the Pac-12 player of the year last week.

Now, Brady is on the other side of interactions with those giddy young fans at games, many of whom say they play with jersey No. 7 because of her.

Enquist said part of the pull to college softball is the players’ transparency.

“Would we be as popular a sport if we were just a bunch of robots out there being super competitive? Probably not,” Enquist said. “We’re an individual sport that is really camouflaged as a team sport. When I get up to the plate it’s an individual sport. There aren’t nine people getting in the box with me.”

Limited professional opportunities mean most players stay for their full eligibility, adding to the competitiveness and making them more recognizable as their college careers progress. Among the stars, there’s Oklahoma’s Jennings, a top 10 player of the year finalist who is quietly climbing to the top of Oklahoma and WCWS record books. There’s Nebraska’s Jordy Bahl, the former Oklahoma ace who missed this season with an injury but holds high expectations when she returns next year, and Tennessee’s Karlyn Pickens, who joined Abbott this year as the second Lady Vol to be named SEC pitcher of the year. There’s two-way powerhouse Valerie Cagle, the reigning player of the year who helped put Clemson on the map.

“I thought I could come in and accomplish all these goals and no one would care. Now, looking back I understand it’s very unrealistic,” said Cagle, who set a school record in hits (83) while pitching with a 1.56 ERA last season. “That’s so cool to me that people recognize softball and are excited about it.”

And then there’s Canady, whose impact goes beyond the mound.

Natasha Watley, a four-time first-team All-American at UCLA and two-time Olympian who runs a foundation dedicated to diversity in softball, said Canady is inspiring the next generation.

“I have a young daughter now; to see a Black pitcher at Stanford University – that’s normal. That wasn’t the norm for me,” Watley said. “I don’t know if she realizes how powerful it is.”

Canady said she noticed early on the lack of diversity in the sport (only 6 percent of college softball players are Black, according to NCAA data), “but that was something that helped me want it even more.”

A two-time state champion and Kansas Gatorade Player of the Year, Canady grew up playing numerous sports alongside her brother, B.J., now a freshman defensive lineman at Cal. In the second grade, she briefly played offensive line. She was a four-star basketball recruit in high school before focusing on softball as a senior.

“Her hitting coach (growing up) told us she could go off to college and be all-conference in basketball,” said her father, Bruce Canady, “but if she sticks with softball, they would talk about her for a long, long time.”

That talk began last summer in Oklahoma City, and will only intensify if Canady and the Cardinal make another run over the next three weeks.

Becerra, who has called many of Canady’s games, marvels at this moment for both the pitcher and the sport.

“Somehow, she’s gotten even better since last year,” Becerra said. “No one’s really sure how that’s possible, but that’s what generational talent does.”

(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; photos: Eakin Howard, Katharine Lotze / Getty Images)

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