After a largely successful regular season, the Northwestern Wildcats (36-17) will head to Athens, Georgia for the second time in three years to begin their NCAA Tournament. Though rain is in the forecast, the Wildcats are scheduled to begin the double-elimination regional round 11 a.m. Central Time today against Cal. All games in the regional will be televised somewhere on the ESPN family of networks (including Watch ESPN and ESPN3), but the opener will be shown on ESPNU.
Cal (34-19) finished seventh in Pac-12 regular season play with a 7-16 record, and went just 2-19 all season against RPI Top 40 opponents (Northwestern finished 7-7 by the same measure). Despite their struggles down the stretch, the Golden Bears were awarded the second seed in the four team region, meaning they will earn the home designation for today’s contest.
Northwestern will attempt to follow up their Big Ten Tournament success behind freshman ace Kenna Wilkey, who has gotten better and better as the season goes along. After ripping off a personal 10 game winning streak down the stretch of the Big Ten season, the righty has allowed just a 2.50 ERA over her last seven appearances. Even after getting rocked for four runs early in the Big Ten Championship, she was able to respond with four scoreless innings after reentering with the bases loaded in the fourth against the hot bats of the Gophers, garnering some momentum for the upcoming tournament.
UPDATE: Although we still expect Wilkey to pitch in the second game for the Wildcats, it will be sophomore southpaw Morgan Newport in the circle for today’s opener, coming off of her 5 inning no hitter against Michigan State in the Big Ten Tournament Semifinals.
Offensively, don’t expect to see a lot of changes for the Wildcats. Outside of Wilkey, fellow pitcher Morgan Newport, and right fielder Brooke Marquez (who was injured and missed six games in the middle of the season), every expected Northwestern hitter has started every contest. Freshman third baseman Mac Dunlap has hit for most of the season, but has excelled in a defense-only role down the stretch at the hot corner.
The five Northwestern bats at the top of the order have remained largely unchanged all year, and will continue to be key. Seniors Sabrina Rabin, Sammy Nettling, and Marissa Panko flank Rachel Lewis and Morgan Nelson in the second and third spots respectively. Lewis, a first year, has been the breakout star for the Wildcats, piling up a team-leading 17 home runs and 62 RBI. Nelson, a junior, has contributed 13 HRs and 47 RBI, and Rabin, at the top of the order, leads the team with a .379 average. The three, along with Panko (who hits a robust .296), have combined to steal a whopping 87 bases on the year, more than each of the three other teams in the regional. Adding in Nettling’s plate discipline in the cleanup spot, with 29 walks to just 18 strikeouts on the year, this is a Northwestern lineup that knows both how to get on base and what to do when they get there.
After facing Cal, the Wildcats will match up against either host and #7 seed overall Georgia or the Harvard Crimson. The Bulldogs (43-11), unabashed favorites to get out of the regional (as most home teams are in the double elimination setup) are a bit weakened by the loss of ace Brittany Gray in April. But Georgia finished second in the vaunted SEC all the same, and the battle-tested squad, who beat the Wildcats and eventually advanced in the aforementioned 2016 regional, will be a difficult out.
With accomplished teams awaiting them, the Wildcats will have a difficult path out of the regional and into the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament, as they will probably need to defeat Georgia twice even if they do get past Cal tomorrow. But as Wilkey and Newport, coming off her no-hitter of Michigan State last weekend, seem to be firing on all cylinders in the pitching circle, and the bats continue to show life, the Wildcats have a decent chance to make it out of the regional round for the first time since 2008.