Head coach Kate Drohan said Northwestern ace Danielle Williams was not sharp when she faced Oklahoma (52-3) two months ago in Norman. The freshman threw just 21 pitches and was pounded for six hits and six runs in her lone inning of work. The Wildcats lost 8-0, just two days after falling 7-0 to the same opponent.
If Northwestern (47-11) wants any chance of slaying Goliath, their steady southpaw will need to be on top of her game. The Wildcats travel to Norman for a best-of-three Super Regional this weekend against the top-ranked Sooners, with the winner booking a place in the Women’s College World Series.
NU is coming off its first NCAA Tournament Regional victory in eleven years, while Oklahoma is making its tenth straight Super Regional appearance. The Wildcats’ .272 team batting average and 1.83 team ERA are impressive. Oklahoma’s .365 team batting average and 1.10 team ERA, however, exists in rarified air.
Despite the obvious challenges the country’s best team presents, the Wildcats said they are excited for the opportunity to go against the Sooners with the benefit of two months of continued improvement. Kate Drohan said that Northwestern’s experience in Norman and growth as a team since their time there will prove vital.
“In terms of understanding their venue, they have got a great crowd. They have a great atmosphere, so our team will be ready for that. Just being familiar with their team is going to help us a lot, especially with our younger players.”
That oft-mentioned young core has powered NU back into national relevance this year, but was largely silent when the Wildcats mustered four hits and no runs over those two early losses. Hitting coach Caryl Drohan said their progression this year gives her confidence that the lineup will be more successful this time around.
“When we faced Oklahoma the first time, we knew that they were the toughest team we’d faced up to that up until that point during the season,” she said.
“When you have young hitters, and it is the first time they’re seeing pitches move like that, when you try to explain it to them, they may not understand it. Then they experience it, and then the next week of practice, they’re like ‘all right, what do you want to do? Let’s do it. Let’s make it happen.’ That’s what those games taught us, and that’s why we were able to go on such a great run, because it was more about competing in the batter’s box than really thinking about yourself. It was like ‘let’s go attack that pitcher.’”
NU batters will be seeing a tough pitching staff, anchored by arguably the best pitcher in the country in Giselle Juarez (25-1, 1.15 ERA). Despite the Wildcats’ struggles against Amber Fiser and other quality pitchers over the past month, they believe seeing those hurlers will be an advantage going into this series.
After Louisville pitcher Danielle Watson kept Northwestern off balance in earning a 2-1 win on Saturday, the Wildcats started slow against her in the winner-take-all matchup on the following day, but adjusted and made the most of their three hits, putting up four runs. All of the hits came in the fourth inning or later.
“In-game, the most important thing we can do is to stay confident and know you have to be better the next pitch than you were the previous pitch,” Caryl Drohan said. “You don’t need to re-invent anything. We have worked on that. I thought we did a great job Sunday of executing our plan, making Watson feel uncomfortable and making her throw pitches she did not want to throw to us. That was a huge learning experience for us...I think we’re going to see that this weekend.”
Wisconsin snapped Oklahoma’s 41-game winning streak Sunday in the first game of the Regional Championship. Badger pitcher Kaitlyn Menz gave up a leadoff home run to Sydney Romero but pitched flawlessly after that. Trailing 1-0 in the top of the sixth and runners on second and third, the Badgers successfully executed consecutive suicide squeezes to take a 2-1 lead they would not relinquish.
The Sooners immediately felled Menz and Wisconsin 2-0 in the deciding contest. Their brief window of success illustrates both the tiny margin of error NU will have this weekend and the precision they will need to display. Though the Wildcats struggled to lay down effective bunts during their Regional, they have consistently done a lot with a little, evident in their Game 7 victory over Louisville.
“As hitters, we need to make an adjustment with every pitcher that comes in, understanding that we need to drive in runs somehow, whether that’s by a walk, by hitting someone in, or by bunting,” said catcher Jordyn Rudd.
The Northwestern pitching staff will also need to rewrite the script. Williams was not the only Wildcat in the circle to struggle against Oklahoma early in the year. Kenna Wilkey allowed seven runs on eight hits in 4.1 innings, while Kaley Winegarner and Morgan Newport fared better in shorter appearances.
“They were very aggressive and got some long balls early, and we took her out,” Kate Drohan said, referring to Williams. “Danielle has learned a lot since then — our whole team has. We have really understood who we are and what our identity is all about, so at this point it is about us being our best version of ourselves, staying in it and fighting pitch to pitch.”
Oklahoma has hit 103 dingers this season, tied for tops in the country. Pitching coach Michelle Gascoigne, facing her alma mater (with whom she won a national championship and began her coaching career) this weekend, said the lack of holes in their lineup is a challenge but encouraged her pitchers to not overthink it in the circle.
“They have a lot of experience throughout their lineup and a lot of power,” she said. “It’s just about being able to contain their power a little bit and do what we do best and execute our game plan.”
If they want to stun Oklahoma and punch its ticket to the Women’s College World Series next week, the Wildcats will need to execute their game plan to perfection. Though the task is daunting, coaches and players alike didn’t let on any nerves.
“One of the reasons everyone came here was to play in the super regional and have this opportunity,” Morgan Newport said. “For all that to come together really means a lot to us. This is a really special team, we really love to play together, support each other and have each other’s backs no matter what.”
Game 1 of the series is set for Friday at 2 pm CT and will be broadcast on ESPN2. Game 2 will be Saturday at 3 CT on ESPN, and a potential Game 3 would be Sunday at 1 pm on ESPN.