The Long Way Home: Groundbreaking Transfer Taryn Kern May Unlock a Stanford TitleTop Stories
In a region known for hellaciously long commutes, Taryn Kern has them all beat.
It can take most of an evening to drive from one end of the Bay Area to the other, the corridor often ranked among the world’s most congested. Kern only needed to go from San Jose, where she grew up, to Stanford, not much more than 20 miles distant. But getting there involved a two thousand mile detour. And as Stanford’s first undergrad transfer since 2000, several years before Kern was born, her journey was more than two decades in the making.
Two decades and two thousand miles. That’s got to be some sort of record.
For a team looking to capitalize on last season’s run to the Women’s College World Series semifinals, the sophomore is nevertheless right on time. No matter that she grew up thinking that Stanford might as well be the far side of the moon.
“I’ve lived here by whole life—35 minutes away from school—and I never came to a camp, just because I thought it was so unrealistic,” Kern said. “I thought there’s just no way I’m going to be able to play at Stanford, let alone the academics. When I got here, Coach Allister was like, ‘Why didn’t you ever come to a camp?’
“You know, it’s a good question.”
Answering why she returned inadvertently tells you a lot about college softball in 2024.
- In a sport contemplating a future beyond an Oklahoma senior class currently pursuing its fourth consecutive national title, pairing Kern with NiJaree Canady gives Stanford two of last year’s three finalists for NFCA Freshman of the Year—and the only freshmen to finish with better than six WAR.
- In welcoming even Stanford to the world of the transfer portal, Kern’s relocation further highlights the growing significance of player movement. Transfer rates have nearly doubled in less than a decade, Kern, Jordy Bahl, Kelly Maxwell and erstwhile Cardinal Alana Vawter just a high profile few among hundreds.
- As pandemic eligibility ends after this season, Kern embodies another legacy of that era, one with several years still to run. She and her peers saw their recruiting experience altered by the peculiarities of pandemic life. College softball is still sorting out the ramifications.
But if Kern is an avatar for her times, she’s also part of a story as old as time. Overlooked and underrated, and thus unencumbered by expectations, she followed her own path. She took the side roads and beat everyone to the destination, putting together one of the most impressive freshman seasons in the history of the sport. And then, rather than settle for well-earned comfort, she blazed her own trail one more time. She traded the comfort of the underdog role for the chance to live out what she barely dreamed possible. The chance to go home.
Sometimes you need to see how far you can go. No matter how long it takes you to get there.
“I’m just reminded every day of how grateful I am and that I know this is where I was meant to end up,” Kern said. “All the worries and the work up to this moment brought me here.”
A Hitter Made for Nerd Nation
Some kids grow up with a trampoline in the backyard. Others while away afternoons in the pool. Kern had a batting cage, the metronomic sound of bat meeting ball echoing deep into the night.
Her dad, Chris, played college baseball at Gonzaga, a passion that helps explain the whiffle ball bat in toddler Kern’s hands in family photos. He put up the backyard net for his kids and taught them how to hit, serving up front toss after front toss. As often seems the case with parents who competed at a high level, he was present but not pushy. More often than not, it fell to him to be the supportive voice—Kern, a perfectionist, always willing to be her own harshest critic.
Whether it was nature or nurture, she loved everything about hitting. These days, she’s the sort who can’t enough data, the one who needs little coaxing to curl up with a laptop or tablet and break down opposing pitchers through Synergy, the ubiquitous video and data analytics tool.
“Hitting is just so interesting—I feel like I’ve developed into a hitting nerd,” Kern said. “There are so many different parts to it, and I just think it’s crazy how you can do everything right and still fail 60 percent of the time if you’re an All-American. To commit to something like that—hitting is mechanical, it’s about timing, about pitching. There are so many different factors. And there’s so many resources in college that you can use and almost create your own version of what hitting is to you.”
Stanford alumna Chiney Ogwumike, originator of Nerd Nation, would be proud.
A Product of Her Era
Kern may have taken college softball by surprise a season ago, but she didn’t emerge from an Iowa cornfield. She attended Archbishop Mitty High School, the same San Jose softball power that produced Keilani Ricketts and Jazmyn Jackson. She played for the same travel organizaton, Warrior Academy, as UCLA standout and fellow freshman All-American Megan Grant and dozens of other Division I commits.
Sometimes the easiest place to go unseen is in plain sight. Perhaps because she was one of many, she wasn’t singled out. She wasn’t a prep All-American or a ranked recruit. People saw her, but they were usually looking for someone else.
“To be honest with you, I’ve always kind of been the underdog,” Kern said. “Growing up, I was never ranked on these lists of top 100 players or the best players in the class, those types of things. I felt like I was always kind of under the radar—and I love to be that way. I love a good underdog story.”
She was also born at the wrong time. Kern began her sophomore year at Archbishop Mitty in 2019. The following spring, as she was entering the most important 18 months of any recruit’s softball life, the world shut down. Even when youth sports resumed after the initial phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, restrictions on travel and recruiting activities reshaped the experience.
Coaches expressed interest in Kern, but as the Zoom and phone calls continued, she sometimes felt as if she was on hold—a backup option as programs tried to guard against uncertain times by lining up recruits. A practical sort, she understood their dilemma. She was thrilled to sign with Indiana, even if she wasn’t able to visit the campus or meet people in person beforehand. Come for a year and see if it’s the right place for you, was the message. No hard feelings if not.
Stanford didn’t recruit her out of high school. But Allister remembers seeing her play in Salinas, Monica Abbott’s hometown, the summer after Kern’s senior year. The coach was there to see one of her teammates, a familiar story in Kern’s life. But watching her swing a bat, Allister’s first thought was along the lines of “Wow, who is this?”
The second thought was “Why don’t I know who she is?”
“It’s a testament to how the recruiting process is imperfect,” Allister said. “But also it was just a time with a lot of interruptions within recruiting.”
Fortune did its best to get in the way of Stanford’s second chance.
Kern entered the transfer portal after Indiana’s season concluded in the Knoxville Regional, but the rest of the postseason rolled on toward the Women’s College World Series. She had a list of schools that she felt would be ideal destinations, and it didn’t take long for almost all of them to make contact. All but one. Allister and the Cardinal were a little busy at that moment, pushing Oklahoma to the wire in an unforgettable semifinal.
“Totally fair,” Kern laughed while recalling trying to follow up via text message, “They’re literally playing for a national championship, that is the priority, not the transfer portal.”
Allister insists they weren’t ghosting her. But in addition to their focus on the task at hand in Oklahoma City, there was an even bigger problem than too few hours in the day. In theory, adding someone like Kern was a no-brainer. Who wouldn’t welcome her after the freshmen year she enjoyed in the BigTen? Well, historically, Stanford wouldn’t. Kern or any transfer.
The Cardinal were the only team in last year’s WCWS that didn’t have a transfer on the roster. Transfers accounted for more than a third of eventual champion Oklahoma’s total bases and more than a quarter of its innings pitched. The Sooners were not the outlier. For the Cardinal? Nary a pitch thrown nor a bat swung by a transfer. No transfer had played for Stanford since Jessica Draemel arrived from Nebraska in 2000 (sitting out the redshirt year still mandated at the time).
For Allister, who was a freshman when Draemel finally took the field, the absence wasn’t rooted in any philosophical objection. Transfers just weren’t practical. It’s no secret that Stanford is among the most selective schools in the country, the most recent acceptance rate for all students checking in at 3.68 percent. The acceptance rate for transfers is barely half that. Nor was that the only hurdle.
Students looking to transfer to Stanford need to submit applications before an early spring deadline—an inflexible deadline. That presents obvious problems for students who played spring sports. Short of a student taking a total flyer, applying on their own without any communication with coaches, scholarship guarantee, etc., the deadline proved, well, fatal. Until a policy tweak last summer intervened.
“When I talk about the stars aligning, like, the stars aligned,” Allister said of Kern’s timing. “We got a little bit more flexibility because they understood that, for spring athletes, that hard April deadline doesn’t necessarily make any sense.”
Allister told Kern the softball program would love to have her. But she also cautioned, in so many words, not to get her hopes up. It would be a long road. The real moment of celebration for both arrived only after Kern got her acceptance notice.
Stanford finally had a transfer.
The Missing Piece
It’s difficult to quantify just how good Kern was last season, but there are more than enough numbers out there with which to try.
- Her .942 slugging percentage ranked third in Division I, trailing only Florida’s Skylar Wallace and Kentucky’s Erin Coffel. That was nearly 100 points better than any other freshman, nearly 200 points better than any other freshman in the Power Five.
- She ranked fourth in on-base percentage, again trailing only Wallace and Coffel among players from Power Five schools.
- She hit one home run in her first 17 collegiate games. She hit 22 in the next 45 games. She finished with three fewer home runs than the entire Stanford team.
- In the first two NCAA Tournament games of her career, she went 2-for-4 with a double, home run and two walks against Louisville and Tennessee.
Meanwhile, power was noticeably absent in an otherwise stellar Stanford season. The Cardinal slugged .394 and averaged 4.39 runs per game, ranking 131st and 122nd, respectively, in the process. With two of the best arms in the sport in the circle, they didn’t need to score much. With Vawter now in South Carolina and Allister unlikely to ask Canady to throw 300 innings, they may need to score more.
So, how much can one hitter influence a lineup?
“I think, obviously, a lot, but at the same time, not that much,” Allister said. “I think where [that hitter] really can impact is that we’re going to be able to draw a lot of confidence from Taryn, which I think is really exciting.”
Allister talked with no small measure of excitement about writing River Mahler and Kern’s names atop the lineup card. Another member of what is now a sophomore class for the ages, Mahler was a first-team All-Pac-12 selection as a freshman after hitting .350 with a .438 on-base percentage. Assuming Kern doesn’t clear the bases first with a lot of two-run home runs, they’re going to provide a lot of RBI opportunities for everyone who follows them in the order.
But there’s a reason that of the 18 players who had more WAR than Kern a season ago, only Kiki Milloy, Wallace and Jayda Coleman never threw a pitch. As Allister said, one hitter among nine can do a lot … and not that much.
“I think that it would be a mistake to put the the weight of the order on Taryn’s shoulders,” Allister said. “One, that’s too much for anybody, and, two, it’s just not necessary. You can score runs in a lot of different ways. Have we been a home run hitting team the past few years? No, that’s not how we’re built, that’s not the athletes we had on the roster. It’s not a home run hitting contest; it’s a scoring contest.
“Adding the power to the middle of the lineup is going to be a good complement, and I think it’s a really good step for the program. But we’ve got a lot of really good hitters and a lot of ways to score runs.”
The Cardinal just need Kern to be herself. That has always been perhaps her greatest strength. It will also be her biggest challenge. She thrived taking people by surprise. The other player on powerhouse high school and club teams. The freshman in Indiana’s lineup. The unknown name among national leaders. On a team expected to contend for titles, plural, that’s going to change.
“When the person that you don’t expect comes up in the big moments because of the hard work behind the scenes, I really do love to be that person,” Kern said. “Kind of a mystery that people don’t understand.”
It’s right there in her numbers. A year ago, Kern averaged 4.54 pitches per plate appearance, easily the best on the Indiana roster and more than just about any of her All-America peers. She also swung at the first pitch just 8.8 percent of the time, a softball order of magnitude less than most of her peers. She resisted the temptation to push. She refused to change her approach in an effort to make a quick impression. She just went about being herself.
“It doesn’t really matter what your swing looks like if you can’t execute when you get up there,” Kern said. “I think the mental game is even more of a big deal and more important in college than the physical game. When it comes to my approach and how I go about my offensive game, it’s trusting in my process and trusting that my preparation got me to this moment. Yeah, I’m not super aggressive like a lot of other hitters. I’m more committed to [the principle of] I know what I’m good at and when the opportunity comes, I’m going to take advantage of it.”
Kern has already navigated part of the transition, adapting to life in the classroom at Stanford. She spent her first quarter catching up on requirements. As softball season opens, including opening week games against Kentucky, San Diego State and familiar Big Ten foe Minnesota, she’s working through courses in urban studies, earth systems and science, technology and society. She marvels sometimes when she looks around classrooms or walks across campus and sees peers who are already Olympians or launching businesses and nonprofits.
Now, it’s her turn. No matter how long it took to cover those 20 miles, she’s here.
“I think something that people don’t talk about is what do you do when you get your dreams?” Kern mused. “You work so hard to get to this point and then you get there, and it’s like, dang, you’re there. So I’m here, getting ready for season, just staying humble and grateful because that got me here.
“And I hope that gets me to where I want to be in the future.”