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Softball: NU remains atop Big Ten standings with another series sweep

The Wildcats are looking unstoppable.

Give Northwestern (36-7, 15-0 B1G) a time, a place and an opponent, and they will show up ready to play. They will also likely win. For the fifth consecutive weekend, the Wildcats swept a Big Ten series, taking all three games from Purdue (30-20, 6-11 B1G).

The Wildcats are off to both their best overall start and best conference start in program history.

Games one and two proved simple for the ‘Cats, as they won 11-1 in a five-inning, run-rule victory Friday and 8-2 on Saturday. Game three proved more dramatic, as Kate Drohan’s squad surmounted an early 2-0 deficit to take it 6-3.

Danielle Williams (23-3) took to the circle Friday, hurling a four-hit, one-run complete game. Despite throwing for just five innings thanks to the run rule, she managed to strike out twelve, while also getting plenty of help from the offense.

Jordyn Rudd clocked a grand slam in the first inning as the Wildcats put up five runs in the opening frame on just one hit. Purdue pitcher Kaitlynn Moody did not record an out before being pulled, giving up three earned runs.

“I really liked our balance in the batter’s box and our pitch selection,” head coach Kate Drohan said. “We put a lot of pressure on them just by generating runners, and a lot of different people throughout the lineup stepped up to get the big hit.”

In the third inning, Morgan Nelson went yard for a three-run home run to increase the lead to 9-0. Back-to-back RBI singles in the fourth by Lily Novak and Mac Dunlap made it a double-digit lead, and one run from Purdue in the top of the fifth was not enough to thwart the run-rule victory.

Seeing so many of Purdue’s pitchers in the opener helped the Wildcat hitters prepare for who they would face the rest of the weekend.

“It really informs the next two games,” said left fielder Morgan Nelson. “It’s still mentally challenging, because you’re like ‘we have to jump on them in the first inning, we have to do this and this,’ but you start to visualize it at night, too. You put your head down on the pillow and you’re already visualizing each one of their pitchers, so it’s really helpful.”

Saturday’s victim was Kenna Smith. The Purdue right-hander was tagged for four earned runs, also failing to retire a single batter. The ‘Cats batted around for another 5-0 lead after an inning, Nelson hit her second home run of the series to lead off the second, and Mac Dunlap garnered an RBI single for the second consecutive game.

Kaley Winegarner got the start for Northwestern. She threw 2.1 innings, giving up two runs (one earned), three hits and three walks. Kenna Wilkey relieved her, working out of a jam in the third and a bases loaded jam in the fifth to preserve what was then a 7-2 advantage. She went 4.2 innings for her ninth victory of the season.

Senior Day on Sunday brought a different type of contest between these two squads. In the first and third innings, Northwestern had runners on first and second with no outs via walks from pitcher Sydney Bates, but were unable to bring them home.

Williams surrendered the first two runs of the game, but the ‘Cats responded with four in the bottom of the fourth, aided by two Boilermaker errors.

The “highlight” came when center fielder Skyler Shellmyer laid down a bunt. Third baseman Jenny Behan’s throw to first was errant and rolled all the way to the right field wall, allowing Shellmyer to round the bases and score.

Drohan said with Shellmyer’s speed and the lack of offense to that point, the ‘Cats were willing to try anything to generate runs.

“Initially I was thinking I would just get to three,” Shellmyer said. “Then I look up rounding second and I see Kate waving her arm and I’m like ‘are you serious, you’re really going to send me right now?’ and I look and see the ball isn’t even near the infield, so I was really happy about that.”

Rachel Lewis added two important insurance runs with a two-out double in the fifth, and Williams closed it out. The freshman threw her 20th complete game of the season for her 23rd win, giving up three runs on as many hits.

“I thought Purdue did a nice job managing her changeup, they were able to score some runs on it,” Drohan said. “I’d like to see her command the strike zone a little bit better, but still with all that being said I thought she pitched really tough, and she’s very competitive. When we needed her to stop their runs, she made it happen.”

Two of those three hits were solo home runs off the bat of Purdue second baseman Kendall Chase, who hit three total solo home runs off of Williams this weekend.

The ‘Cats took care of another inferior conference opponent, maintaining their half-game lead over Michigan for first place in the Big Ten. The two teams do not play each other during the regular season, but Northwestern finishes its season in two weeks with a weekend series at third-place Minnesota.

“The thing we’ve been talking to our team about is leaving our record, streaks, anything like that in the locker room,” Drohan said. “We come out here and we’re here to play ball. It’s all about now. We shift gears, we get ready for Illinois on Tuesday. And with Illinois, we play one game at a time.”

NU will remain at home for their doubleheader against the Fighting Illini.