Despite losing two out of three in their final regular season series this weekend at Wisconsin, Northwestern (34-16, 14-8 in Big Ten play) managed to squeak their way to a first-round bye for the conference tournament. The Wildcats, who all but locked up an at-large NCAA Tournament bid with a midweek win at DePaul, have gone 5-3 since our last update, adding a win over Loyola and a series victory over Iowa to their most recent results.
In their final home series two weekends ago, Northwestern took advantage of a struggling Iowa offense, allowing just six runs over the three-game series en route to wins on Friday and Sunday. The series opener featured a dominant complete game by Kenna Wilkey, as the freshman continued her recent hot streak with seven innings of one-run ball.
Sabrina Rabin stole a base and scored twice from the top of the lineup, and Rachel Lewis and Morgan Nelson strung together back-to-back doubles during a three-run third inning, leading Northwestern to an easy four-run victory. On Saturday, however, Iowa turned things around behind ace Allison Doocy, who was masterful in a two-hit shutout. Morgan Newport took the loss for the Wildcats despite allowing just two earned runs. Northwestern got back to their winning ways on Sunday, taking the rubber match of the series behind another great Kenna Wilkey start and success throughout the lineup: six Wildcats had two hits, including Wilkey herself.
Last Wednesday, it was DePaul who got off to a strong start in a crosstown clash. The Blue Demons scored in the first and third innings off Newport thanks to uncharacteristically sloppy defense by Northwestern. But after a three-run Morgan Nelson home run gave the Wildcats the lead in the fifth inning, they tallied four more times in the sixth, and Kenna Wilkey came in for the final three innings to earn the first save of her career.
Northwestern entered Madison hot, but the Badgers quickly cooled them off with a 7-1 win. After reeling off ten straight wins, Wilkey finally faltered, allowing five runs over three innings, and the Wildcat offense never really got going. Rachel Lewis mashed her team-leading 17th home run, but Wisconsin ran away with the victory.
On Saturday, Newport helped the Wildcats bounce back with one of her best outings of the year. The sophomore struck out nine Badgers and allowed just two runs, earning a complete game victory. Wisconsin helped out Northwestern’s offense, committing a whopping five errors, and Lewis stayed hot with a triple that turned into a Little League home run.
Northwestern, however, couldn’t quite take the series. Newport, pitching for the second day in a row, tired out in the fifth, giving up four runs, and a late Wildcat comeback fell just short. But thanks to an Nebraska win over Illinois, Northwestern tied with Ohio State for fourth in the conference, and the Wildcats’ previous series win over Ohio State officially gives them the #4 seed and a bye. Here is the full bracket for this week’s tournament (which, coincidentally, will also be in Madison):
As you can see, the Wildcats will get the Friday night game against either Ohio State or Iowa, two teams they have already taken series from this year. However, the top-seeded Michigan Wolverines should be lurking in the semifinals, and they feature the best pitching staff in the Big Ten.
Northwestern has the tools to take down any of the teams in this tournament, but their draw will be a significant test. You can watch all of the games on BTN or listen live to WNUR Sports if you live in the Chicago area.