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Softball: A measuring stick weekend against Minnesota looms

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In the final weekend of the regular season, Northwestern will face arguably their top in-conference competitor.

NUSports.com

Going by Northwestern academics, at least, this weekend might represent a Week 8 “midterm” for Wildcat softball. The road for No. 14 Northwestern (41-7, 20-0 B1G) certainly will not stop this weekend as they close out their regular season. But regardless of outcome, the series will almost certainly give the Wildcats a good sense of their chances the rest of the way.

This weekend’s opponent is perennial Big Ten and national power No. 11 Minnesota (37-10, 18-1). The Golden Gophers clock in at #10 in this week’s NCAA RPI rankings, one spot ahead of the Wildcats. They are the winner of the last three Big Ten Tournaments and four of the last five, with a regular season title thrown in there for good measure.

This series will primarily be about the circle. Minnesota and Northwestern rank first and second in the Big Ten in pitching, with team ERAs of 1.79 and 1.81 respectively. Danielle Williams (26-3) will likely face off against Minnesota ace Amber Fiser (23-6) Friday and Sunday. Each of the two have impressive ERAs, at 1.28 and 1.33, but even better FIPs (a measure of pitching that does not take fielding into account whatsoever) at 0.93 and 0.71 respectively, relative to the Big Ten.

NU coach Kate Drohan will probably send Kenna Wilkey (10-2) out to start against Sydney Smith (12-4) on Saturday.

These teams boast a nearly identical fielding percentage, with Minnesota’s at .976 and NU’s at .972. The runs will likely have to come clean and manufactured, which hasn’t been a problem for either squad. Minnesota sports three everyday starters with averages over .350, and their team average is .299. The Gophers are scoring an average of 5.85 runs per game as opposed to Northwestern’s nearly identical 5.75 runs per contest.

For Northwestern, stymying Minnesota’s tandem of second baseman MaKenna Partain and freshman phenom left fielder Natalie DenHartog will be key. The Golden Gophers may have lost two time Big Ten Player of the Year Kendyl Lindaman, who transferred to Florida last year, but they still have plenty of pop. Partain ranks fourth in the conference with an average of .409, while DenHartog has driven in a whopping 57 runs on the season. Oh yeah, she also hits .404.

Northwestern has an impressive resume, with wins over four teams in the top 30 of RPI and seven in the top 50. Still, these Wildcats have yet to beat a team in the top 10. Early in the season, NU was twice blown out by currently top-ranked Oklahoma and lost a tight one to Washington, who sits at fourth as of this week.

During their current 19-game winning streak, Northwestern has faced just one ranked opponent, Wisconsin. The Badgers, who at the time were 25th in the country, are no longer among the ranks of the ranked. Just three teams NU has faced during this time (Wisconsin, Notre Dame, and Illinois), are ranked in the top 50 of national RPI.

A seventh consecutive weekend Big Ten sweep would give Northwestern its first regular season conference title since 2008, and a series win would garner at least a share of the title, with an outright win possible if Maryland takes at least one from Michigan.

Northwestern will be a top-three seed in the B1G tournament regardless of what happens this weekend, but between Minnesota and the beginning of postseason play in just a week, this a true test of the mettle of Kate Drohan’s squad.

Saturday’s game will be on national television, with the 3 pm CT start carried on ESPN2. The series finale will air Sunday at 3 pm on BTN, but Friday’s opener at 6 pm is available only via BTN Plus.

Northwestern leads the all-time series, 58-57, with the last meeting coming in last season’s Big Ten Tournament championship. That game resulted in a 9-6 Minnesota victory.