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Softball: ‘Cats stay perfect in Big Ten play, sweep No. 25 Wisconsin

Look who’s the sole occupant of first place in the B1G.

Despite a weather-condensed weekend that led to a long doubleheader on Saturday afternoon, Northwestern softball wouldn’t be denied, sweeping a three-game series against No. 25 Wisconsin.

The Wildcats began the weekend with a hard-fought 4-1 victory, buoyed by yet another complete game from freshman pitcher Danielle Williams, who gave up just one run and four hits while striking out nine batters.

Facing Williams was Wisconsin pitcher Kaitlyn Menz, who entered the game at 13-3 with a sub-1.50 ERA. She nearly went toe-to-toe with the freshman phenom, as only two of her four runs given up were earned.

Unlike many games this year, Northwestern trailed early in all three games of the set. Down 1-0 in the second inning of the low-scoring opener, Lily Novak and Danielle Williams hit back-to-back RBI singles to give the Wildcats a lead they would not relinquish.

“There’s just no quit in this team,” head coach Kate Drohan said after the series finale on Saturday. “We can hit homers through our lineup. If the top of the lineup and heart of the lineup don’t get the job done, our bottom of the lineup has some of our most competitive hitters.”

Wisconsin helped the ‘Cats salt Friday’s game away by committing an error that led to two runs scoring off a Jordan Rudd hit in the bottom of the fifth, and Williams closed things out from there.

Games two and three were impacted significantly by Saturday afternoon’s blustery conditions.

Game two bore no resemblance to the pitcher’s duel that was the series opener. With the wind blowing out at Drysdale Field, the bats were popping; a combined seven runs in the first two innings led to Kenna Wilkey throwing just 1.1 innings, with Kaley Winegarner making an early appearance in relief.

The two Morgans got things going for NU in the bottom of the first. Down 1-0, Nelson roped an RBI double and then Newport cracked a two-run opposite field home run to give the ‘Cats a 3-1 lead. Wisconsin answered in the top of the second with a Caroline Hedgcock solo moonshot to left field and a two-run jack to center field from Kelly Welsh.

Down 5-3 in the fourth, Northwestern mounted a comeback, sparked by none other than Danielle Williams. Her pinch-hit RBI single was followed by back-to-back home runs to the same exact spot in the right field stands from Rachel Lewis and Morgan Nelson.

That would be all for the game’s scoring, as Morgan Newport entered to throw a clutch scoreless final 2.1 innings, allowing just one baserunner. She picked up her first save and Winegarner earned her fourth win of the season after her 3.1 innings of one-run relief.

“In a doubleheader in the Big Ten you need all hands on deck, and the neat thing about our pitching staff is they’re so unique and they bring something new to the field,” Drohan said. “Morgan Newport hasn’t been on the mound a lot in the last month, and she just really challenged the hitters and used her changeup very well.”

While Williams finished game two in right field, she was back in the circle for game three. It wasn’t exactly the smooth sailing that we have become accustomed to. She threw all 10 (!!) innings for her 19th complete game of the year, but allowed an astronomical (for her) four earned runs.

“She battled,” Drohan said. “There were some points today where she just had to challenge the hitters and trust her defense, and that’s what I’m most pleased with. I wouldn’t exactly call her sharp this weekend, but she pitched tough.”

A four-run fourth inning (containing two more two-run bombs, this time from Lewis and Maeve Nelson) was the Wildcats’ only scoring until they walked it off in the tenth. Wisconsin used a stretch of four consecutive one-run innings to tie things up in the sixth, and though Northwestern had prime chances to end it in the seventh and eights innings, Menz found a way out of each jam.

Lily Novak secured the sweep by going yard in the bottom of the tenth, though she said she wasn’t swinging for the fences.

“I was just going for a base hit, staying back and wanted to get a rally going for the team,” Novak said.

Morgan Nelson, apparently, knew it was coming regardless.

“I don’t want to brag, but I called Lily hitting that ball,” she said. “Before the pitch I said she was going yard.”

Northwestern is now a sterling 12-0 in the Big Ten, and they sit alone at the top of the conference standings. The games against Notre Dame (who they beat 3-1 on Tuesday) and Wisconsin represent some of NU’s toughest competition this season, and going 4-0 this week adds to the team’s resume significantly as they continue to climb in the national rankings.

The new polls should release Monday, but in the most recent iteration of the RPI (released Sunday night), Northwestern was a season-high 12th, putting them in position to potentially host a regional for the first time in a decade.

The Wildcats’ next series is this coming weekend when they host Purdue.