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Softball: Northwestern comes from the loser’s bracket to win first NCAA regional in 11 years

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With their backs against the wall, the Wildcats won three straight elimination games on Saturday and Sunday.

Northwestern Athletics

It was not easy. It was not quick. Kate Drohan even said she experienced all four seasons over the course of a long weekend at Sharon J Drysdale Field. Nevertheless, Northwestern (47-11, 21-2 B1G) found a way to defeat Louisville (35-23, 12-12 ACC) twice on Sunday and claim the Evanston Regional.

For the 16-seeded Wildcats, the landmark performance marks their first regional win in 11 years. They will advance to face top overall seed Oklahoma during next weekend’s best of three Super Regional round.

NU opened tournament play strong Friday against Detroit Mercy. The Titans, playing in their first ever NCAA Tournament, struck first off of Danielle Williams (31-6), but that would be all for them. The Wildcat bats woke up an inning later, pouring on 15 runs between the second and third frames thanks to home runs by Jordyn Rudd, Williams, and fellow pitcher Kenna Wilkey in the latter inning. The freshman threw just three innings before Wilkey closed out the run-rule victory.

Entering the winner’s bracket on Saturday, the NU lineup slowed down. In a battle of the Danielles, Williams was more efficient, but Louisville hurler Danielle Watson (12-15) got the result in a rain-interrupted contest.

Williams was nearly unhittable on the day but managed to take the loss. The Pleasanton, Calif. native retired 21 of the 23 batters she faced, but the two mistakes she made were each tagged for solo home runs. On the other side, Watson consistently worked herself into trouble, only to strand nine Northwestern baserunners, seven of those coming in the first three innings.

After a three-hour rain and lightning delay that split the fifth inning, the game picked up right where it left off; Northwestern struggling to make solid contact and Williams making quick work of a Cardinals lineup batting .288 coming into this weekend.

“Watson throws hard, and she primarily threw to the third base side of the plate,” Drohan said. “When we did make contact, we were just early on it. She was sharp on that side of the plate, and we were too late making the adjustment.”

The Wildcats threatened in the bottom of the seventh with Maeve Nelson doubling in Morgan Nelson, but they could not bring the freshman home to tie it.

“I think we beat ourselves in the batter’s box, and we didn’t have the aggressive at bats we usually have,” the former Nelson said.

The loss dropped NU to the loser’s bracket, meaning it had to play the Salukis of Southern Illinois Saturday night. The Wildcats took the field at 9:25 CT needing a victory to keep their season alive and advance to Championship Sunday.

Wilkey started and pitched a game somewhat reminiscent of Watson earlier in the day. The sophomore, who was NU’s workhorse in last year’s NCAA Regional, walked the tightrope all night. Two Salukis reached base in every inning but the last, yet they managed only one run, thanks in large part to two key double plays in the first two frames.

“It was huge for our defense to kind of bail her out those first couple of innings,” Drohan said. “I think it was actually the key to the game for us to be able to hold them and then put a couple on the board.”

Morgan Newport paced the offense, going a sterling 4-for-4 with 3 RBI, including a two-run home run. The lineup totaled 12 hits, half of those for extra bases.

Wilkey helped herself in a big way, crushing a grand slam in the top of the seventh to give herself an 8-1 cushion and her second big fly of the regional.

“It was good for us to put that game away offensively in the seventh,” Drohan said. “We were a lot more aggressive, and we were able to barrel up the ball a little bit better.”

The Wildcats needed two wins over Louisville Sunday, but the weather continued to make its presence felt, causing another two hour delay before things could get going.

Once the sun shined, Williams did her thing yet again, allowing just three baserunners while striking out 10 over six innings. Just one Cardinal hitter reached base in her final four frames of work, and Louisville’s two hits never left the infield.

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“She’s tough,” Louisville coach Holly Aprile said. “We have trouble picking up the changeup and her other pitches, too. Her changeup looks exactly like a curveball, so when it’s coming in it looks like the same stuff, so she’s not giving you anything, she’s not slowing down.”

Although trailing 1-0, Cardinals starting pitcher Megan Hensley no-hit the Wildcats through three innings. Despite that success, Aprile elected to relieve her with freshman Taylor Roby in the fourth inning.

That decision proved to be costly as Northwestern rallied to score four. With two outs and the bases loaded, an error followed by a hit by pitch kept the inning alive. Morgan Nelson then lined a single into center field to score two more.

The Wildcats cruised from there to win 7-0, with the victory setting up a winner-take-all game to determine the regional champion.

The two Danielle’s went at it again and both hurled the entire game. It was scoreless until Morgan Newport smacked a two-run double into center field in the bottom of the fourth inning. The junior saw the ball well all regional long, totaling eight hits and six RBIs.

“I was trying to stay aggressive,” Newport said. “My game plan was just to think ‘yes, yes, yes’ until I decided to choose a ball.”

Louisville answered right back, though, and plated two runs in the fifth, taking advantage of a wild pitch on a strikeout and an infield single. Williams prevented any further damage and left the bases loaded.

The scoring continued in the home half of the inning when NU loaded the bases with one out. Nikki Cuchran came up huge with what was ultimately the game-winning hit, lining a two-strike single into center to reclaim a two-run lead.

“At this time of year especially you need to rely on your teammates and the people around you,” Cuchran said. “It’s looking to my teammates around me and knowing that I didn’t have to put all the pressure on myself. I’m just thinking to pass the bat, make anything happen and put the ball in play.”

The Cardinals threatened again in the sixth, and with no outs and runners on first and second, Kyra Snyder hit a bloop into left field. The runner at second, Maddy Newman, had to hold up to see if the ball would drop in for a hit, and Morgan Nelson came up throwing to get her out at third on a controversial call. Instead of bases loaded with no out, the fielder’s choice left runners on first and second, and Williams retired the next two batters.

Louisville drew one run across in the top of the seventh after a leadoff triple, but Williams protected the one-run lead, and a Mac Dunlap throw to Lily Novak sent the Wildcats to their first Super Regional in 11 years.

Williams threw 340 pitches this weekend and 37 innings versus Louisville this season. She gave up just six runs and 17 hits in those innings, leading to a personal record of 5-1 against the Cards and two key wins in the games that counted.

It was a grinding road back for the ‘Cats after Saturday’s loss, but Drohan said she knew her team had the toughness to climb all the way back.

“We talked about winning each pitch, winning each inning,” said Drohan. “And last night, it was about ‘get to Sunday.’ When we started out today, it was like ‘force a game two.’ We were really trying to keep a narrow focus. It had been a while since our program has been able to do this, so we really wanted to be clear about what kind of focus we wanted to have.”

With the region in hand, Northwestern will have to turn around quickly, traveling to Norman in a few days to face the Sooners (52-3), who had a 41-game win streak (including two over NU early on) snapped this past weekend.

But after their impressive tightrope act on Sunday, the Wildcats aren’t lacking in confidence. Leave it to Maeve Nelson to tell you:

“When we put our minds to it, this team is literally unstoppable.”