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Amazing comebacks continue, but Northwestern Softball’s season comes to a close

After a wild ride through the postseason, the Wildcats couldn’t quite top #7 Georgia in the regional championship.

After their gutty first round win over Cal, Northwestern was riding a surplus of confidence into the winner’s bracket final against Georgia. That ended in a hurry. The Bulldogs smoked the Wildcats 12-0 behind cleanup hitter Alyssa DiCarlo’s three home runs, one off of each Northwestern pitcher, and the team looked to be just about done.

But once again, as they did all season, the Wildcats picked themselves up and kept fighting. Cal earned the right to a rematch thanks to a 10-1 drubbing of Harvard, and starter Zoe Conley had Northwestern eating out of her hand for six innings: one of the top 15 offenses in the country manufactured just one run on a single, sacrifice bunt, groundout, and a passed ball. And for a while, despite the proliferation of illegal pitches (more on that in a second) and constant Golden Bear baserunners, it looked like that run might even hold up.

In the sixth, though, Cal finally broke through. After Wildcat starter Morgan Newport got out of jams in the first and second and Kenna Wilkey came on to do the same (with a big assist from left fielder Morgan Nelson, who threw out speedster Sabrina Nunez at home on a potential sacrifice fly) in the fourth, Northwestern ran out of stops. Following another illegal pitch-driven walk, first year third baseman Mac Dunlap attempted to erase the lead runner on a sacrifice bunt. The throw came into second just a touch late, and another bunt, groundout, and single later, it was a 2-1 Cal lead. Northwestern went scoreless once more in their half of the sixth, and the Golden Bears added an insurance run on a Little League Homer to center.

Newport, now the designated player, struck out looking to start the bottom of the seventh, and things were looking dire. But an infield single from Lily Novak and an error on a slap-hit grounder from Sabrina Rabin brought up the winning run in the form of Northwestern’s best hitter, Rachel Lewis. Despite starting the tournament 1-9, Lewis had already lined out and grounded out sharply in her two at bats on the day against Conley. This time, she timed her up fully, driving a two runs double to left center field and giving the Wildcats life.

Two intentional walks, to Nelson and Marissa Panko, were sandwiched around a groundout from Sammy Nettling, and Kenna Wilkey, Friday’s hero, stepped to the plate with two outs and the bases loaded in a tie ballgame. But the first year’s bat wasn’t needed this time. A wild pitch scored Lewis, and Northwestern earned another date with Georgia in dramatic, walk-off fashion.

As the Wildcats readied for their matchup with Georgia, the illegal pitch drama was reaching its climax. In softball, a pitch is defined as illegal when the pitcher lifts her back foot from the ground during the pitching motion, “launching” herself towards the batter. The penalty, more lenient than last year when baserunners were allowed to advance a base, is a ball on the batter, with the opposing team being allowed to take either the auto-ball or the outcome of the play.

Undeniably, Wilkey and Newport were breaking the rule on many of their pitches. According to video played by ESPN before the Georgia game, so was Zoe Conley. And according to analyst and former star player Megan Willis, so do “about 80%” of pitchers nationally. But the umpires in the Athens regional fixated on Northwestern’s tandem, calling over 40 illegal pitches on the Wildcats over their 4 games, and nearly 35 on Newport alone. The repeated calls had an undeniable effect on the games, with many seeming outs turning into balls or even walks. Twice, an opposing batter would have been out twice in her at bat were it not for the illegal pitches, and both times said batter eventually reached. Essentially, Northwestern was playing from behind in almost every defensive inning.

Amazingly, the Wildcats didn’t let it affect their mentality. Newport worked out of multiple illegal pitch-created jams against Cal, and Wilkey responded to get multiple outs of her own after the repeated setbacks. But against a lineup as good as Georgia, any mistake will come back to haunt you.

The night of sleep before the regional championship seemed to help both offenses. Northwestern, who would have needed to win both ends of a potential doubleheader, had by far their best offensive output of the tournament, with seven runs and their first homer of the postseason. The Bulldogs brought their share of firepower, though, and eventually it was enough to overcome the Wildcats.

Georgia struck first. After yet another walk on an illegal pitch, the Bulldogs used Newport’s habit of keeping the ball down to their advantage, using their speed to load the bases on consecutive slap-hit infield singles. Wilkey entered to try and stop the bleeding, but after an RBI single and a sac fly, the Bulldogs led 2-0.

Northwestern got it back and then some in the third. In their biggest offensive explosion of the tournament, the Wildcats followed back-to-back walks with three singles, taking a 4-2 lead. As they have all season, though, Georgia’s powerful offense quickly struck back. Wilkey limited them to a run in the bottom of the third, working her way out of another jam, but the fourth brought a pair of two run homers (aided by another illegal pitch), and it looked, once again, like the Wildcats were done for.

As I’m sure you know by now, they weren’t. Lewis led off the next half inning with a single, and Nelson walked behind her. Despite two strikeouts by Kylie Bass, entering for Mary Wilson Avant, Wilkey forced a two-out error, allowing both runners to score and cutting the deficit to one. Back-and-forth it went, with the Bulldogs responding for another two on a two run sixth inning triple after Northwestern stranded a runner at third in the top of the frame.

Even trailing by three entering the seventh, the Wildcats kept fighting. Marissa Panko launched a two out solo shot to center for the first home run of the entire postseason for Northwestern, but Wilkey grounded out to third, and Georgia earned a tough 9-7 win and a trip to the regionals.

For Northwestern (38-19), it was a disappointing end to the season. But they reached the Big Ten Tournament final for the first time since 2008, and gave their seniors a run to the regional championship replete with comebacks. By any measure, it was a successful year, and though we’ll have a full season recap up later this week, suffice it to say that the future is bright for softball in Evanston, Illinois.