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Softball: A year after falling just short in the regional round, Wildcats ready to take next step

It’s go time for Kate Drohan’s squad.

Although Athens, Georgia, was a nice place to go twice in the last three years for NCAA Regionals, Morgan Nelson was overjoyed to finally host one in Evanston.

“Being on the cusp [of hosting] and seeing our name up there, oh my gosh I just got so excited,” Nelson said. “My mom immediately called me. It is going to be a new experience for me as a senior, so I am really excited.”

Despite a forecast of fifty-five degrees and the potential for storms during Northwestern’s opener Friday, the Wildcats’ chances to win their regional are warmer than they have been in over a decade. The No. 16-seed Wildcats will play host to Detroit Mercy, Southern Illinois and Louisville this weekend in the NCAA Tournament Regional.

Northwestern (43-10) will face Detroit (31-26) at 2:30 pm CT (or 30 minutes after the end of the game between the other two teams) to open tournament play. A win against the Titans would set up a matchup against the winner between the Cardinals and Salukis on Saturday at 2 pm, and a win there would put them in the championship game. The Wildcats must take three games to win the double-elimination regional.

Of the three team group, Northwestern has played only Louisville (second-seeded within the regional) this season, winning all three contests.

After a sterling regular season that featured a program-record 21 Big Ten wins, a 20-game winning streak, four players named to the Big Ten All-Freshman team, and the Big Ten Freshman and Coach of the Year, Northwestern is ready to test its mettle in Tournament play.

“We see our talent, our youngsters stepping up with their energy and good vibes, so from the beginning of the year just looking to set the stage for ourselves,” Nelson said. “All that mattered at the time was our wins-losses column, so putting in the hard work early really helped us in the end when we were on the bubble.”

Though the Wildcats have enjoyed immense success this season and improved considerably as the season has gone along, they have gone through one of their toughest stretches in the past two weekends, compiling a 2-3 record in that span. Granted, all three of last week’s losses came to Minnesota and Gophers ace Amber Fiser, the Big Ten Pitcher of the Year.

Nevertheless, after flying high for a month and a half, Kate Drohan said her team has learned the importance of generating offense in different ways over the last couple of weekends.

“I think even though we haven’t gotten the results we have wanted, that growth mindset is still there,” Drohan said. “I see a lot of work being done that is like ‘okay, how can I get a little better at this, how can I finish this at bat, how can we be a little bit tougher at the mound?’ so I think we are definitely growing as a team.”

Still, the Wildcats scored a meager three runs over their past five contests, which has led to a re-evaluation of what the batters are doing at the plate.

“We’ve been facing some really good pitching,” Rachel Lewis said. “I don’t think that has been us all the way. I think we have shown sometimes where we didn’t look like ourselves, and I think that has been the focus of this week: getting back to focusing on us and not so much on the opponent. I think we can do big things if we just focus on ourselves.”

Drohan said she wants to see her hitters adapt as the weekend goes along since they will be seeing several pitchers and multiple spins and pitch speeds.

“At this point in the game, your swing is your swing, but it is about putting a good swing on the right pitch,” she said.

The Wildcats are no stranger to the postseason. In Drohan’s 18 years at the helm, NU has made 13 NCAA tourneys, seven Super Regionals and two Women’s College World Series.

Last year’s squad, a revitalized group that returned to the big dance after a one year sabbatical, came up a pair of wins short after a wild ride in the regional round. But with this team’s continued confidence and the incalculable boost of hosting (no host has failed to advance from the regional round in the past two years), they look ready to take the next step.

“We had an excellent senior class last year, and they kinda set the course, and we’re seeing their legacy come to fruition here,” Drohan said. “Making it to the championship game of the regional last year in Athens was great, especially for players like Rachel Lewis, Kenna Wilkey, Mac Dunlap, those freshmen who carried a lot of the load for us last year. But our goal this year is to keep going, so we’re excited about the opportunity here, we’re especially excited to host it in Evanston, but our mind is on what can we do to advance.”

Lewis, a second-team All-American last year, agreed, saying the experience of playing on this stage at a big school like Georgia will definitely be beneficial.

“I think the veterans are really going to lead the way for the freshmen,” Lewis said. “The freshmen have nothing to lose at this point. They have never been here, so they are just going to go out and play hard, and we’re all going to go out there and play hard.”

As for those freshmen, having nerves for their first NCAA Tournament experience are normal, but their teammates and coaching staff has told them to focus on what has gotten them here and to seize the moment like any other. Kate Drohan, for one, is not worried.

“Our freshman come from great high school programs, from great youth programs,” she said. “They have played in a lot of championship games, so our message to them is ‘hey, you’re ready for this. You have put a team on your back and carried them already, it’s the same game.’”

Nelson echoed similar sentiments, saying the freshman should not be anxious as the competition they will face this weekend will not be too different from what they have already seen and their teammates will be there for support just as they have been all season.

“The ball does not know how old you are,” she said. “It is okay to go 0-for-3 as long as the team wins.”

Whether from freshmen or seniors, there is a palpable hunger and excitement throughout the team thanks to their trust in an impressive regular season track record.

“We just have to remember what we have done all year,” Lewis said. “We are confident and we are ready to advance. That’s the goal of the year. We are not just happy to play.”

All games this weekend will be broadcast on ESPN3, starting with today’s afternoon clash with Detroit. Here is a link to the Evanston Regional Bracket, with dates and times included. If Northwestern wins their regional, the ‘Cats would likely face top overall seed Oklahoma in Norman for the ensuing Super Regional.