Northwestern softball (29-15 B1G) entered their final series of the regular season knowing the stakes. It had been nearly a month since the team had won a series, and with the NCAA Tournament selection show occurring Sunday night, the Wildcats knew they were on the fringe of having their season ending prematurely. Of course, the question remained: could they pull it off?
We’ll spare you the dramatics: yes. The ’Cats won a critical series against Nebraska (22-22 B1G) this past weekend, taking three of four games from the Huskers in convincing fashion. The win was critical for Northwestern, as on Sunday the NCAA announced that the team had been selected to play in the postseason tournament. The ’Cats will play the Kentucky Wildcats (39-13, 13-11 SEC) this Friday at 11 AM CT.
In her final series at Sharon J. Drysdale Field, graduate utility player Morgan Newport shined by whacking five hits and batted in six runs, with two home runs to boot; she also pitched seven innings in the series-clinching game, striking out seven and allowing 11 hits.
The ’Cats were also led by junior first-baseman Nikki Cuchran, who whacked four hits, three runs and three RBIs, senior second-baseman Rachel Lewis, who recorded four hits, scored three runs and knocked in three runs, and sophomore left-fielder Angela Zedak, who batted four hits and scored three runs, with a home run. Pitching-wise, the ’Cats were led– as always– by junior left-hander Danielle Williams, who pitched two complete games, won the first and allowed just 12 hits, striking out 25 in the process.
Nebraska was led in their effort by first-year shortstop Billie Andrews, who knocked six hits and three runs in, and senior left-fielder Tristen Edwards, who notched two home runs and four total hits over the four games. In the circle, Nebraska saw a great effort from junior right-hander Courtney Wallace, who pitched 17 innings, struck out seven batters and notched the Huskers’ only win of the weekend on Saturday.
After a tough series at Purdue (18-26 B1G) that saw the ’Cats offense suffer– only seven runs scored over four games– Northwestern came out swinging against Nebraska. In the first game– played on May 14– the ’Cats scored six runs; five of which came in the second inning. Newport got the party started for the team, whacking a home run to right to open the scoring.
Angela Zedak followed that with a 2-run shot of her own, putting the ’Cats up 3-0 early, and the top of the order worked some small-ball– grounders and infield plays– to score two more runs. From there, it was the Danielle Williams show, as she struck out a season-high 13 batters and allowed just four hits, helping the ’Cats cruise to an easy 6-1 win.
If the first game was a reawakening for the Northwestern offense, the second game– the first of two played on May 15– was its morning coffee. The ’Cats once again kicked off their scoring with a big five-run second inning, kicked off by a big single from Nikki Cuchran, who knocked a ball into right-field to score two runs for the ’Cats.
After loading the bases, Nebraska senior right-hander Olivia Ferrell issued a walk to junior catcher Jordyn Rudd, bringing in the third run and Newport back to the plate. Looking to add to her senior weekend, Newport shot a ball right through the shortstop gap to score two more runs, bringing her RBI total on the weekend to three.
Buoyed by the pitching tandem of first-year right-hander Lauren Boyd and sophomore left-hander Sydney Supple– who allowed four and no hits, respectively– the ’Cats would go on to score four more runs, winning the game on a rare “run rule” victory, meaning Northwestern’s 8 run lead was deemed “insurmountable” by the NCAA, and ended the game. Out-scoring the Huskers 15-2 over the past two games, the team looked almost unstoppable heading into the third match.
With Danielle Williams back on the mound for the ’Cats for the second game of the May 15 doubleheader, Northwestern looked primed and ready to continue their dominance. The team once again opened the scoring, this time coming in the third inning. Rudd continued to push for the ’Cats, knocking in the first run of the game on a deep double, and Newport followed her immediately with a single of her own, batting in another run.
Following another Northwestern run scored in the fourth, Nebraska started to finally show signs of life, with junior left-fielder Peyton Glatter and sophomore third-baseman Brooke Andrews each whacking a solo home run in the fifth-inning to make it 3-2. Despite these individual efforts, the ’Cats continued to work the basepaths, and it paid off in the bottom of the fifth, as Rachel Lewis was able to steal home following a throwing error.
While the ’Cats led 4-2 heading into the sixth inning, the game quickly became the Cam Ybarra show. The senior second-baseman led the comeback for the Huskers, singling in a run in the sixth to bring the Huskers to within one, and with the bases loaded and two outs and down to her last strike in the final inning, she punched another single to right field, allowing two runs to score.
The ’Cats could not retaliate, and they dropped the close game 5-4, heading into senior day in a must-win situation.
For the senior day game– played on May 16– Morgan Newport saved her best for last, as she both started the game for the ’Cats as pitcher and led the way in scoring as well. Despite allowing a run to score in the first inning, Newport held strong, and more than made up for it in the third, when she knocked a no-doubt home run to center field, scoring two runs and giving the ’Cats the lead.
While Nebraska was able to tie it up the following inning on a two-run single from Billie Andrews, the ’Cats continued to power through, with Rudd batting in another run in the fourth inning and two runs scoring in the fifth off more small-ball. Despite allowing two more runs to score on home runs in the sixth and seventh innings, Newport weathered the storm, and ended her magical weekend the only fitting way.
Following the win, the ’Cats waited with anticipation to see if they’d be selected for the NCAA Tournament. After waiting for nearly a half hour, ESPN officially confirmed that Northwestern had slipped into one of the final slots, playing for the 14th seed in Lexington, Kentucky, against the Kentucky Wildcats (39-13, 13-11 SEC), Notre Dame Fighting Irish (31-13, 20-10 ACC) and the Redhawks of Miami of Ohio (46-8, 36-2 MAC).
The NCAA Softball tournament is not exactly simple, as it’s what is called a “double-elimination” tournament, meaning a team is not out until they lose two games. Essentially, if the ’Cats lose to Kentucky in the first game on Friday, they’ll play the loser of the Notre Dame-Miami game for the chance to survive. If they win that game, they’ll have a chance to earn their way back in by playing the loser of the “winner’s” game, and if they win that, they’ll be in the regional final, where they’d have to win two games in order to advance to the next round.
Of course, this may not be that simple. Kentucky finished 13-11 in conference play in a top-heavy Southeastern Conference this year, and are currently ranked 14th overall in the tournament. If the ’Cats can continue to click, however, they could pull off a surprise Cinderella run.
Let’s just hope they don’t play in glass slippers.