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Softball ekes out extra inning first round victory over Cal

Thanks to some late-game heroics from Morgan Nelson and Kenna Wilkey, the Wildcats will move on to face Georgia.

Despite some nervy moments late, Northwestern (37-17) was able to squeak past Cal (34-20) in eight innings on Friday morning, advancing to the winner’s bracket and a matchup with regional host Georgia today at 11 a.m. Central. The Wildcats and Golden Bears were scoreless for four innings, but after each team struck for two runs in the fifth, the only other run was the winner, coming in the top of the eighth for Northwestern.

Morgan Newport began the game in the circle for the Wildcats, and the sophomore southpaw started off hot. Newport scattered four hits over her first four innings, and despite recording just two strikeouts, she induced plenty of soft contact, working the ball low in the zone and changing speeds constantly.

For Cal, Kamalani Dung started things off similarly. The junior transfer from Fresno State had to work her way out of a couple of jams, but got through three and two-thirds scoreless innings with six strikeouts. However, after Zoe Conley finished up the fourth, the Wildcats jumped on the drop ball specialist to begin her first full inning of work. After Sabrina Rabin beat out an infield single, Morgan Nelson tripled to right-center field for one of her team-high three hits on the day, driving Rabin home.

Sammy Nettling, the next batter, drove her home in turn with a perfect squeeze bunt, and suddenly the Wildcats led 2-0. But the advantage was short-lived. Cal came out in the next inning ready to play small ball, and consecutive bunt singles combined with some heads-up base running and defensive forgetfulness from Northwestern drove one runner home, with another standing on third. Newport exited for Kenna Wilkey with just one out in the fifth, and the junior right-hander immediately gave up a double to left on a misplay by Nelson, who got turned around and allowed the ball to drop. It was one of three doubles on the day from Cal’s Mikayla Coelho, and it tied the game at 2. Wilkey kept the deficit there, but the damage was done.

Things settled down a bit until the bottom of the seventh. After a controversial illegal pitch call, one of nine against the Wildcats on the day, erased a leadoff pop out and turned it into a walk, Cal quickly laid down another successful bunt, before an intentional walk to the flaming hot Coelho loaded the bases with just one out. But Wilkey worked through it. The first year induced a force at home on a soft grounder to second before a lazy fly ball to right ended the inning.

After Nelson’s third hit on the day, followed by another Nettling bunt, put a runner in scoring position, Wilkey, hitting for herself as per usual, came to the plate with two outs. On the tenth pitch of the at bat, the first year lined one so hard off the center field wall that she had to stay at first.

The damage was done, though. Three batters later, Wilkey had earned the win, and Northwestern had moved on to the winners bracket.

In the other game of the day, regional hosts and #7 seed overall Georgia jumped out to an early lead on Harvard. Despite a lengthy rain delay, the Bulldogs put away the Crimson with ease, winning 6-2 to earn their spot in the winners bracket against the Wildcats. If Northwestern can knock off Georgia today, they will advance to the regional final, needing to win just one of a potential two games against whoever emerges from the losers bracket on Sunday to advance. But if the wildcats lose, they will have to beat the winner of Harvard and Cal to get another crack at Georgia, who they would then need to beat twice. So today’s matchup, clearly, carries immense importance.

The game, originally scheduled for 1:30, was moved up to 11 a.m. Central to try and avoid the weather. It will be televised somewhere on the ESPN family of networks (UPDATE: The game will be streamed on ESPN3), and WNUR Sports will be broadcasting live radio as well. We will keep you updated if any scheduling information changes.

For comments from Morgan Nelson, Kenna Wilkey, and Head Coach Kate Drohan immediately after Friday’s win, see below: