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Hello, relevance: successful season and young core has the Wildcats on the prowl

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For the next several years, Northwestern softball looks poised to remain a national threat.

@NUSBcats

Northwestern was simply outmatched by No. 1 Oklahoma this past weekend in their first NCAA Super Regional in eleven years, bringing an unfortunate end to their season and the careers of two important seniors.

But for the team as a whole, the losses served as an important learning experience and a sign of growth at the culmination of a truly incredible season. National freshman of the year (!) Danielle Williams fared much better in her second go-round versus the Sooners, and the Wildcats hung with the country’s top team for much of the series. For a squad that was out of it after the first inning in both games against Oklahoma in March, the weekend showed marked improvement.

A lot has been written about this team’s freshman class, and rightfully so. Morgan Nelson and Lily Novak, two valuable everyday starters, will be missed, but no other players will graduate out of the team after this year. The Wildcats are keeping their promising core intact as they get set to welcome another talented group of recruits.

Similarly to lacrosse, this season was one of return, resurgence and relevance. Northwestern has a proud softball history, having reached five Women’s College World Series appearances and claimed seven Big Ten Championships. The last few years, though, have told the story of the Wildcats climbing back to national prominence.

In the Morgan Nelson/Novak era, the Wildcats made three NCAA tournaments, but also missed out completely with a losing record. Even when NU made two tournaments in the past three years (going to Athens, Georgia both times), they weren’t seen as much of a threat to make a deep run. After all, the only non-regional host to advance in the past three seasons was James Madison, who toppled #15 Michigan this year.

From the outset, though, this campaign held a special air around it. Seasoned veterans who had flirted with a dose of success combined with a mass of energetic, uber-talented freshmen gave the Wildcats a unique vibe.

During several games at Sharon J. Drysdale Field, the team led the crowd in chants of ‘Go U! NU!’ during stoppages. When they weren’t interacting with fans, they brought their giddiness to the field: just try to find a picture of Danielle Williams talking to her teammates where she isn’t smiling.

Of course, it was easier to stay so excited at home when the team was having so much success there, losing just twice all year at the J. It fit the vibe, though. But that positivity continued on the road. Morgan Nelson praised the lack of negativity from the younger players multiple times during the season, and that cropped up even at times when the team was undergoing significant struggles.

Northwestern started the season strong, garnering multiple quality wins over top 30 RPI teams and facing off against some of the toughest competition it would see all year. Then, the Wildcats went on an absolute tear, ripping off a 20-game winning streak (featuring an undefeated April), and accumulating a program-record 21 overall B1G victories.

Williams stole the spotlight, and rightfully so. The newly-minted NFCA National Freshman of the Year mowed down batters like a buzz saw and consistently helped herself at the dish. Her 31 wins in a season rank fourth in program history, her 317 strikeouts rank fifth and her 13 shutouts rank sixth; and she did all of it in her first go-around as a college pitcher.

The Wildcats saw several other members make huge impacts, especially Williams’ classmates. Catcher Jordyn Rudd and shortstop Maeve Nelson both made the All-Freshman team with her after outstanding seasons, and Rudd was named All-Big Ten first team. Second baseman Rachel Lewis earned second team honors, weathering a sophomore batting slump by leading the Big Ten in walks and the team in homers.

In the midst of NU’s sparkling April, chatter of potentially hosting a regional began to spark. After the Wildcats lost three of four games to Minnesota in a week and failed to make the Big Ten Championship game , the chances of the tournament coming to Evanston looked dim. But luck was on Northwestern’s side. Their RPI, ranked well in the top 16 for the last couple of weeks of the season, landed them the coveted 16th and final host slot.

The Evanston Regional was worth more than the accompanying boost in the probability of advancement to the Super Regional. It was always likely NU would lose to Oklahoma once they reached the next round, but the Wildcats had not hosted a regional since 2008.

Fans were excited to watch live postseason softball, the J was packed, and the players fed off the energy to come back from the loser’s bracket and make a statement. Hosting (and winning) a regional for the first time in over a decade serves as a tangible accomplishment that re-cements Northwestern’s place on the map of elite softball programs.

The challenge for Kate Drohan next year is taking another next step.

The Wildcats won nearly 50 games, but could not solve the nation’s best teams. NU went 16-3 versus teams ranked between 50 and 20 in RPI, but just 1-8 against top ten competition. A ranking in the teens was right where Northwestern belonged this season, but to truly make the next few years successful they will need to improve their record against the Oklahomas and Minnesotas while continuing to beat up on lesser teams.

There’s reason to believe that they can make use of this special young core and become a top ten team in a year’s time. With a year for the current youngsters to develop and the addition of a top ten recruit (pitcher Sydney Supple) at the head of another impressive class, watch out.

Northwestern returns its entire pitching staff, with Kaley Winegarner spending a fifth year after receiving a medical allowance. This kind of pitching depth — Williams, Wilkey, Newport, Winegarner and Supple, with Lauren Dvorak, who redshirted this season, and other freshmen potentially entering the mix — is difficult to come by.

With what could be the deepest staff in the Big Ten and a lineup that pairs talent with experience, there are exciting things to look forward to at the J next year and beyond. This season served as the all-important stepping stone back to relevance, but the future, for now at least, is limitless.