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Softball: NU sweeps Rutger to open conference play

It’s the Danielle Williams Effect™.

It was a warm welcome home for Northwestern softball this weekend.

On a pair of 40 degree days, Northwestern (22-6) swept Rutgers (15-13) this weekend behind two stellar outings from first-year pitcher Danielle Williams, picking up their 20th, 21st and 22nd victories this season.

Games one and three were not close, with the ‘Cats winning both games in five-inning, run-rule victories. They shutout the ‘Ger 8-0 on Friday afternoon and closed things out Saturday with a 9-1 shellacking. Game two was competitive, with Northwestern coming from behind in the sixth inning to win 5-3.

Williams was in the circle for both easy wins. She threw a two-hit shutout in the 8-0 win for her 12th complete game of the year, tied for tops in the Big Ten. Just one start later she notched her 13th complete game, allowing just one hit and one run in the 9-1 victory. The first-year phenom lowered her ERA to 1.17 while picking up her 14th and 15th wins of the year. Her performance this weekend earned her Big Ten Freshman of the Week, the third time she’s won the award.

Rachel Lewis got the scoring started Friday with a lead-off home run for Northwestern. It was the second straight game she had hit a lead-off dinger. The home run was record-breaking, allowing Lewis to become only the seventh member of the “roof club” at Sharon J. Drysdale field by smashing one all the way over Welsh-Ryan Arena out in left. See for yourself:

After that, it was smooth sailing. Maeve Nelson hit another bomb two batters later, and the ‘Cats’ bats finished the job in the third and fourth innings, scoring a combined six runs. Nikki Cochran capped things off with a two-out grand slam in the fourth.

The win was Northwestern’s first run-rule, shutout victory in their home opener since 2008, when they won 10-0 in five innings against Wisconsin.

Kenna Wilkey started the second game, giving up 3 runs over 4.1 innings of work. At that point, the Wildcats were down 3-1, with Kaley Winegarner entering the ballgame in a bases loaded jam. She kept it at a two run deficit, and it was Northwestern’s game to take over from there.

Skyler Shellmyer, having a 3-for-3 day at the plate, drove in Williams on an RBI single in the bottom of the fifth. After a scoreless top of the sixth, Jordan Rudd and Lily Novak hit back-to-back home runs in the inning’s home half, giving the Wildcats a two-run lead. Williams took it from there in the circle, closing out the save with two strikeouts and a meek pop-up.

After the thrill of Saturday’s early game, the series finale was much less heart-pounding. The only things pounding, in fact, were Wildcat bats, as they mashed 12 hits in four innings at the plate for nine total runs. Trailing 1-0 early, Nikki Cuchran and Rachel Lewis both had first-inning RBIs, giving the ‘Cats a lead they would not relinquish.

A four-run second inning busted this one wide open, and Northwestern scored in every inning they were at the plate. Rachel Lewis shined at the plate, going 3-for-4 with an RBI and scoring three runs. Cuchran added two more hits and RBIs, Novak tallied two hits and a RBI, and Morgan Nelson tacked on two RBIs.

Northwestern statistically dominated their New Jersey foes this weekend, hitting .417 and holding Rutgers to a .130 batting average. The Wildcats hit as many home runs, seven, as the Scarlet Knights had hits across the series.

After picking up their biggest win to date, a ranked victory over Indiana, two weekends ago, Northwestern showed no signs of a hangover. In last week’s USA Today/NFCA coaches poll, the team was on the fringe of being ranked with 37 votes received. There’s a good chance they could be among the nation’s top 25 teams when the next poll is released.

With a strong start to Big Ten play in the books, Northwestern hosts DePaul on Wednesday and then hits the road for a three-game set at Iowa this coming weekend.