Spring forward: Softball

 

I’ve fallen rather behind on these spring sport summations, so let’s get caught up starting with softball.

Softball is probably NU’s second most visible spring sport after lacrosse. For seven straight seasons, from 2003-2009, the Wildcats made the NCAA tournament, especially making hay in 2006, when they lost in the championship finals to Arizona, and in 2007, when they made it to the semifinals. NU also won BigTen titles in 2006 and 2008.

Last season, though? Not so good. The Wildcats started the season ranked No. 15, then stumbled to a 25-23 record, missing out on a postseason berth.

I was tempted to quote the chorus lyrics of a certain annoyingly catchy Avril Lavigne song currently playing on the radio, but the team has picked up the pieces moderately well this year so far, with a 22-13 record overall, 4-6 in conference. Still, the Wildcats are on the NCAA tournament bubble and will likely need a strong finish to the regular season to snare an at-large berth.

Hit the jump for more softball info.

Most recent result: The Wildcats this afternoon are playing a double-header at Purdue. Last weekend, NU swept conference bottom-dweller Ohio State (how good does it feel to say that?) in dominating fashion, 14-0 on Saturday and 12-2 on Sunday in a game that was mercy-ruled after five innings. The previous weekend, the Wildcats were swept by Iowa, 10-8 in extra innings and 9-7.

How does the sport work? The BigTen in 2009 got rid of its conference tournament, so now the regular season champion gets the conference’s automatic bid into the NCAA tournament. Right now, No. 2-ranked Michigan and Indiana are tied for the league lead, at 10-2 in BigTen play. NU sits in 8th place.

The NCAA has a 64-berth postseason tournament, with 31 automatic qualifiers and 33 at-large berths. Selected teams are divided into four-team, double-elimination regionals. Winners of the 16 regionals advance to super regionals, which are a best-of-three affair. The eight super regional winners advance to the Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City. The World Series is a double-elimination event, until the final, which is a best-of-three.  Got that?

How’s the team doing? Considering 2010’s struggles and the fact that the roster is relatively young, the team is doing not too bad. From last year’s squad, the Wildcats lost second team All-BigTen second baseman Nicole Pauly and starting pitcher Lauren Delaney, along with a handful of other starters, to graduation.

In have stepped several highly touted freshmen, who should continue to improve with more experience, and a few sophomores have stepped up, as well. The team has just four seniors in the starting lineup and a senior starting pitcher. More info on the individual players is below.

Offense appears to be no problem for the Wildcats, who rank third in the BigTen in batting average. But as with last year, pitching remains the team’s bugaboo, as the team ranks 8th in the conference in ERA.

The team’s biggest win was over No. 11 Cal in March, but the Wildcats have dropped all nine other games they’ve played against ranked opponents.

How’d they do last year? As I said, pretty mediocre by recent standards, finishing 25-23, without an NCAA tournament berth. Given the fact that NU was ranked No. 15 in the preseason, that would definitely qualify as a disappointing year. The Wildcats finished fourth in the BigTen at 10-8, which, on the bright side, marked the seventh straight year the team has finished among the top-four of the conference. 

What’s the historical context? Prior to the seven-year NCAA tournament streak from 2003-2009, the softball program was dominant in the 1980s, under head coach Sharon Drysdale, for whom Wildcats’ home field is named. Drysdale led the team to three straight College World Series berths, finishing third in 1984, fifth in 1985 and sixth in 1986. NU also made the NCAA tournament in 1987 and 2000 under Drysdale, who left NU after the 2001 season and is now a professional coach with the New England Riptide.

Who are the players to watch? Junior 1B Adrienne Monka is the headliner, leading the conference in batting with a .506 average. She’s hit 10 home runs and driven in 46 RBIs. She’s so dangerous that she’s been pitched around a lot, with a conference-leading 45 walks (thus explaining her low at-bats total of 81). If you want to get all sabremetric here, she has a ridiculous 1.652 OPS. College softball’s offensive numbers can be inflated, especially for the top players, but by any metric, that OPS is crazy good. Oh, and by the way, she won this past week’s BigTen Player of the Week award, hitting a perfect 1.000 and driving in seven runs in that sweep of OSU. Coming into today’s games, she has reached base in 14 straight plate appearances.

Right behind Monka, ranking second in the conference in batting with a .489 average, is leadoff hitter Emily Allard, a sophomore shortstop. An unusually tall slap-hitter, Allard has scored 42 runs and has gone 36 of 37 in stolen base attempts. She was the subject of a recent espnchicago.com profile.

Other hitters of note include senior 3B Robin Thompson, who is ninth in the conference with a .400 batting average; senior DH Michelle Batts, who is second on the team with 8 home runs; freshman 2B Marisa Bast, who is hitting .305 with 4 home runs; and senior LF Jordan Wheeler, who is batting .326.

Pitching-wise, senior Jessica Smith leads the team in starts, with 17, going 7-7 with a 3.46 ERA. Freshman Sammy Albanese has made 10 starts, going 7-6 with a 3.13 ERA. Sophomore Meghan Lamberth has a perfect 8-0 record, with a team-leading 2.79 ERA, but she’s racked up those stats mostly against weaker competition.  

Who are the coaches? Kate Drohan is in her 10th season as head coach. Prior to taking the helm, she served as an assistant for four years under Drysdale. In addition to her duties at NU, she’s also worked with the USA Softball national team, coaching the 2010 Futures National Team at the World Cup of Softball. She graduated from Providence in 1995.

In a somewhat interesting arrangement, Drohan’s twin sister Caryl serves as associate head coach. Caryl mainly works with the team’s hitters.

Former Northwestern All-American pitcher Courtnay Foster serves as the pitching coach and is in her first season as a full-time assistant. Foster pitched for the Wildcats from 2003-06, helping lead the team to the Women’s College World Series her senior year.

What’s the outlook for the rest of the season? The Wildcats are 41st in RPI, so they’re not a lock for the tournament yet.

As mentioned above, No. 2 Michigan (42-4, 10-2) and Indiana (30-15, 10-2) are duking it out for the league title and the automatic berth into the tournament. The Wolverines are the only ranked BigTen squad. Figure that Indiana, if it doesn’t knock off Michigan for the title, will likely get an at-large berth, barring some late-season collapse.

Besides Northwestern, other bubble teams include IowaPurdueIllinoisMinnesota and Penn State. NU’s remaining games are all against teams ahead of it in the BigTen standings, including today’s doubleheader against Purdue, which is 4th in the conference; two games this coming weekend at Illinois (5th in the standings); a doubleheader at home on May 4 against Minnesota (tied for 6th); then a big weekend series against Indiana at home; and a final pair of games on the road against Penn State (tied for 6th) to close out the regular season.

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