‘Your best is better’: How NiJaree Canady rises above all

Courtesy of Crash Kamon

It’s similar to repeatedly watching your favorite move. You know every scene and line, yet you’re captivated by it each time. You know it’s coming and it’s still marvelous to watch. That’s NiJaree Canady’s riseball.

Everyone witnessed how incredible she and her go-to pitch were last season as she took the nation by storm as a freshman. But now, teams have a whole season of film on her, she couldn’t possibly keep up what she did last season in this day and age, right?

Through a month of her second collegiate season that couldn’t be further from the truth. Sure, she doesn’t have a perfect win-and-loss record, but let’s be frank, it’s an outdated stat that doesn’t paint the entire picture, especially when she’s given up a combined two earned runs in those losses.

How about her efforts against a trio of Women’s College World Series hopefuls Tennessee, Texas and Georgia? The outings weren’t flawless, she gave up two home runs across those three games, which is double the amount she gave up all of last season. Though she set a better high standard for herself.

These teams possess well-thought-out plans against Canady, they stand out as some of the top teams for a reason. But, as 34 strikeouts in 23.1 innings of work demonstrate, it’s simply hard to beat her and that riseball.

Why is that? As Stanford pitching coach Tori Nyberg tells Canady and the rest of her Cardinal staff: ‘Your best is better’

“We like to lean on our strengths. I tell our pitchers their best is better,” Nyberg said. “When in doubt, go at the hitter with confidence with your best pitch. At the end of the day, even if they know it’s coming, they still have to hit it. The pitches that NiJa throws, they’re tough to hit regardless if you know it’s coming.”

That sentiment already resonates with Canady and she loves the challenge.

“I really thought about this the other day. Even on days it doesn’t feel that good or I know the movement isn’t its best, I know that it’s still good enough,” she said. “Every pitcher knows they have a pitch they can fall back on or use in any situation.”

Even the best hitters in the country struggle with Canady’s riseball as evident with her three strikeouts of Tennessee’s Kiki Milloy (Video via Synergy Sports)

Unlike cinema, Canady didn’t pick up a radioactive softball and was gifted one of the best tools we’ve seen in the sport. Honestly, there’s a timeline that we never see it at all.

Canady tried developing her riseball for the first time toward the end of eighth grade when she started working with Roxy Moran, a former Cal State Fullerton pitcher that taught private lessons in Canady’s home of Topeka.

As hard as she tried for months, it wasn’t working as she hoped. At one point, she even turned to Moran asking if she even needed it because she wanted to quit. Moran told her to stick with it.

Her riseball started to make strides during her freshman year but then the pandemic struck and all she could do was practice. That turned out for the better because all she could do was work on it. Canady stated the next year, her junior season, was when the moment happened and it clicked.

“I like to say that I’ve had it ever since,” as she chuckled.

Canady is undoubtedly talented. She’s strong and powerful. But, so are thousands of other pitchers. The will to keep pushing herself from average to good to great to whatever is next, that’s where the difference lies.

“That’s what is going to give her a good chance to be one of the best pitchers ever,” Nyberg said. “She’s really persistent, works really hard and does good work. She’s not going to rest on her talent. She’s never satisfied. There are plenty of people out there that are talented and she’s obviously exceptional in that regard. But she always wants it to be better. That’s what has allowed her to do with her riseball.”

Both Canady and Nyberg knew they still needed to adjust as pitch caller and pitcher. It’s a chess match for coach and player as teams attempt to counter what they know.

Canady had the realization that the film and data, it’s a two-way street. After spending her freshman year with Alana Vawter and Regan Krause, they helped her discover what’s needed to grow as a veteran pitcher.

“They always looked at hitters’ bat paths and seeing what the hitters are doing during their at-bats,” Canady said. “Staying consistent in hitting their spots and throwing the best pitch they can. I never really thought about that until I got to college. I just worried about throwing my pitch without much worry about what the hitter does.”

That’s part of her game that she’s still working on. Which seems terrifying for the rest of the country as she sits at a 0.57 ERA and 0.54 WHIP and is still finding her way through things.

She can rely on Nyberg, too. The Stanford pitching coach consumes a lot of data and knew immediately that Canady would have a target on her back. She got to work to find ways to make Canady even better.

One of the primary goals this offseason was to add variety to the riseball and hit more spots. Canady worked with a dropball as well. Then utilizing her curveball and changeup throughout all four quadrants of the strike zone.

“That’s the fun part of the job is preparing for the chess match,” Nyberg said. “And how you stay one step ahead. But as the pitching coach you get to make the first move. When you have someone as good as NiJa, all you have to do is pay attention.

Courtesy of Crash Kamon

“Part of her ability to remain successful is how good her pitchers are but also that she rises to the occasion. She’s going to be the best she can be for the team and give them a chance to win. She’s gritty and her best in the biggest moments. You can’t teach that.”

The essential aspect is also ensuring her riseball movement and velocity are there. Nyberg keeps a very close watch on Canady’s pitch count and uses a lot of the information out there to know what her limits are because she wants Stanford to be playing its best in June.

Every word Nyberg speaks about Canady is true. She works hard, she wants to win and she wants what is best for her team. Every big strikeout when Canady has her signature stomp is the pride she takes in herself. She’s always played that way and will continue to do so.

“Softball is an emotional game. I’ve always been an emotional player even throughout high school playing basketball,” Canady said. “When you want to win so badly for your teammates. There isn’t a better feeling than getting a strikeout in a big moment.”

When Canady has stepped into the circle this season, it has felt like a similar movie with a few different twists and turns. The ending, however, has looked oddly familiar.

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