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Softball: Northwestern takes down Sparty, heads into final Big Ten weekend undefeated in conference

I’m running out of ways to say in the dek that they are really good.

Another weekend, another Big Ten series sweep. Ho hum. The Wildcats (41-7, 20-0 B1G) made it six weekend sweeps in a row and took down lowly Michigan State (15-32, 3-16) in a three-game set in East Lansing to hold onto a 1.5-game lead for the top spot in the conference.

NU scored double digit runs twice in the three games, dominating the Big Ten-worst Spartan pitching. The ‘Cats won 10-4 on Friday and 6-2 and 10-1 on Saturday as the final two games were condensed into a doubleheader to miss the inclement weather expected in East Lansing on Sunday.

On Friday, it was a change from the norm as Kenna Wilkey (10-3) started in the circle. Normally it is Danielle Williams who starts Friday and Sunday of a weekend series, but she pitched 10 innings during Tuesday’s doubleheader, so coach Kate Drohan kept her to just one start for the weekend. Wilkey hurled all seven innings, battling through four runs while striking out a career-high 13 batters.

Northwestern continued its early scoring prowess as Skyler Shellmyer’s infield single combined with alert baserunning by Lily Novak and sleepy fielding by Michigan State to lead to a 1-0 ‘Cats lead in the opening frame.

Michigan State tied it up in the home half of the first and the contest remained even until the fourth inning. The Wildcat offense exploded and brought in runs via both small ball and the power game. After a couple of singles and a walk made it 4-1 Northwestern, Lily Novak cracked a three-run triple and a few batters later Wilkey helped her own cause with a two-run homer to finish things off.

The nine-run outburst provided the hurler with more than enough support, as she gave up just three more runs to secure the series opener.

Notably, Maeve Nelson led the way with three hits to go along with an RBI and a run. Rachel Lewis went 1-1 with an RBI and a run as well as four walks, two of them intentional. Wilkey tallied two hits on the day including her dinger.

Saturday, Williams (26-3) started her squad off on the right foot. The lefty threw her 22nd complete game of the season, allowing two runs on three hits while fanning another 13 Spartan hitters.

Another first inning outburst powered by a Morgan Nelson double and a Jordyn Rudd single had NU on top 2-1 after an inning, and the Wildcats would not relinquish the lead. Rachel Lewis hit an RBI double to score Skyler Shellmyer in the fifth, and Northwestern added two more insurance runs in the sixth. Novak scored Rudd on a double and Williams then brought Novak home.

Just for good measure, Rachel Lewis led off the seventh with her 14th home run of the year.

Just a few minutes after winning the series, Northwestern’s bats were ready and able to mash once again, erupting for 14 hits. It was Maeve Nelson who led the way with two monster dingers and four RBI. Her first shot put the ‘Cats up 2-0, and Kaley Winegarner put it in cruise control from there. Winegarner went the distance to become the third Wildcat of the weekend to pick up a complete game victory, giving up two hits in a six-inning, run-rule win, her fifth of the season.

The Wildcats are now 29-2 in games in which they score first and 22-1 in games in which they score in the first inning.

NU poured on three in the second, three in the third and two more in the fifth to cast any doubt aside. Maeve Nelson had three hits in four plate appearances, totaling four RBI, and Morgan Nelson went 2-for-4 at the dish, scoring twice. Rudd and and Novak also had multiple hits in the game. Lewis, Cuchran, Novak and Shellmyer also drove in runs.

Northwestern rolled over a Big Ten basement dweller in Michigan State, outhitting the Spartans 34-13 and handling business yet again. Sitting 34 games above .500 at 41-7, Kate Drohan has to be feeling good about her team’s positioning for the NCAA Tournament. As of this writing, her team ranks 10th in NCAA RPI, a key factor in determining tournament seeds. While this weekend’s result is unlikely to change much, a loss might have adversely affected the Wildcats.

Next up is a trip to Minnesota next weekend to close out the regular season. The Gophers, a perennial power, will be a good litmus test for these high-flying ‘Cats. They are currently ranked 11th in RPI, so it will be an even matchup in Minneapolis. Expect a low-scoring series, as both teams are tied for the best pitching in the Big Ten with a 1.81 ERA.

If they take at least one, the Wildcats should remain in solid position before the Big Ten Tournament to potentially host a regional for the NCAAs.