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Northwestern Softball makes the Big Ten Tournament Final, but falls to Minnesota

Athens is next up for the Wildcats as they begin NCAA Tournament play next weekend.

After the longest tournament in Big Ten softball history thanks to multiple rain delays, the Minnesota Golden Gophers (39-15) outlasted the Northwestern Wildcats (36-17) 9-6 in the Big Ten Tournament Championship bright and early on Sunday morning. Thanks to the weather, the last automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament was parceled out to Minnesota, though the Wildcats comfortably made the field.

Northwestern was the last team to begin play in the 2018 tournament, and their initially scheduled Friday night quarterfinal had to be pushed back to Saturday morning at 10:30 thanks to all of the rain in Madison. After earning a bye during the last series of the regular season, the Wildcats earned the right to play Iowa after the 12th-seeded Hawkeyes defeated the 5th-seeded, NCAA Tournament-bound Ohio State behind the right arm of Allison Doocy. The sophomore ace struck out a whopping 15 Buckeyes, and stayed hot against Northwestern it what was a do-or-die game for her team.

But Northwestern weathered the storm, thanks in large part to Kenna Wilkey, who worked eight full innings and allowed just three hits and a single run. The first year also delivered a rare feat midway through her performance: an immaculate inning.

The Wildcats struggled to string hits together, but after responding to a first inning Iowa run by manufacturing one of their own thanks to singles from Marissa Panko and Morgan Newport, they finally put the winning tally across the plate in the eighth. Lily Novak, who had been in a slump to end the regular season, busted out of it with a leadoff single, and Rachel Lewis, Northwestern’s best hitter, walked things off one batter later:

Amidst the rain on Friday night, Michigan State delivered a shocking upset of their instate rival, the second consecutive year in which they have knocked the higher-seeded Wolverines out of the Big Ten Tournament. So for the second straight game, Northwestern was pitted against a team that needed to win out to make the NCAAs. But the Wildcats brought both their bats and gloves in this one. Every Northwestern starter except Brooke Marquez, who closed the scoring with a three-run double, scored in the eight run second inning. Meanwhile, Morgan Newport achieved a feat of her own on the mound. The sophomore southpaw threw her first no hitter and just the second in Big Ten Tournament history, propelling the Wildcats to an 11-0, run rule victory.

Initially, the plan was for the Big Ten final to begin immediately after the semifinals on Saturday night, which would have forced the Wildcats to play an unprecedented three games in one day. But the rain and lightning stayed steady, and the Big Ten had no choice but to move the game to Sunday morning. The second seeded Gophers, who had seen delays (including one via chopper!) in both their 6-0 quarterfinal win over Wisconsin and their 9-4 semifinal victory over Indiana, were ready for the early start.

Kenna Wilkey, starting her second game in as many days, was rudely greeted by the Gophers, who tagged her for four runs with the first year recording just a single out. Two-time Big Ten player of the year Kendyl Lindaman followed up her first inning RBI double with a repeat performance in the second inning against Newport, who had entered in the first, and by the time the Wildcats got to the plate in the bottom of the second, they trailed 6-0.

Northwestern never stopped fighting. Wilkey mashed a two run double to right center before being brought home on Morgan Newport’s sac fly, and they cut the Minnesota lead in half against ace Amber Fiser.

But the Gophers kept the bats moving, tallying two more in the third and another in the fourth after Nicole Bond entered as Northwestern’s third pitcher and promptly walked the bases loaded. Wilkey then reentered, and threw a run-scoring wild pitch before bearing down and getting through the jam. From there, the first year settled in, not allowing another run for the game’s duration, but nine was all Minnesota needed. The Wildcats tallied in each of the last three innings, but could never get a full rally going, falling by a final score of 9-6.

It was Northwestern’s first Big Ten Tournament Championship appearance since 2008, and despite the loss, the Wildcats proved they belonged. Lewis, Newport, and star senior center fielder Sabrina Rabin were selected to the All-Tournament team by the media, with Lewis adding that honor to her unanimous First Team All-Big Ten recognition.

The first year tallied six hits, three runs, and three RBI on the tournament, and Northwestern’s balanced lineup shone through around her. Rabin tallied five hits from the leadoff spot, Wilkey had three hits and three RBI batting sixth and seventh, Novak added four singles of her own, and cleanup-hitting senior catcher Sammy Nettling reached base in her final five plate appearances, garnering a team-high five RBI herself.

Later Sunday night, the Wildcats were officially selected by the NCAA Tournament Committee. Northwestern will face California in the first round of the Athens, Georgia regional, hosted, of course, by the 7th-seeded Bulldogs.

The tournament’s double elimination structure makes it difficult for non-host teams to advance, but Northwestern has about as good of a draw as could be expected. The Golden Bears, their first round opponent, racked up an impressive-looking 34-19 regular season record, but went just 7-16 in the Pac-12 and a shocking 2-19 against the RPI top 40. (Northwestern was 7-7 by the same measure) Looming hosts Georgia, meanwhile, will be a tough out. But Northwestern played at Athens for their 2016 regional, so they have some familiarity with the venue.

In their 12th NCAA Tournament appearance in 17 years under head coach Kate Drohan, the Wildcats will look to advance past the regional stage and on to the Women’s College World Series for the first time since 2007. The first round will be on Friday, with all games televised either nationally on ESPN and its affiliates or online through ESPN3.