In their final regular season home game this season, Northwestern was scoreless with Illinois in the bottom of the third inning. The Wildcats had loaded the bases with no outs, giving themselves a prime chance to pounce on their in-state rival.
Runs would be necessary, and should they score first, NU would have to feel good about their chances; after drawing first blood, the Wildcats are 30-2 this year.
With the situation ripe for a lead, Northwestern’s next two hitters couldn’t take advantage. Each went down on strikes. Then Jordyn Rudd stepped into the batter’s box. The freshman catcher, batting a team-leading .341 with a team-high 41 RBI while catching every single pitch of the regular season, quickly fell into a hole against Illinois pitcher Sydney Sickles. After loading the bases, NU was suddenly one strike away from squandering a golden opportunity in a crucial game late in conference play.
Down in the count 1-2, though, Rudd turned on Sickles’ ensuing offering and launched it into the late afternoon sun and well over the center field wall.
The Wildcats would go onto win the game 4-2.
“You could feel us kind of losing the momentum,” head coach Kate Drohan said after the game. “But Rudd stepped in there, found her pitch and drove it.”
Northwestern finished the regular season 42-9 overall and 21-2 in the Big Ten, the best conference record in program history and highest regular season win total since 2007, when the Wildcats reached the national championship series.
NU came up just short of a regular season conference crown, but they head into the Big Ten Tournament with their eyes on capturing the title. As long as they put together an impressive performance, there’s a chance an NCAA tournament regional will come to Evanston, something that hasn’t happened since 2008.
Without their heralded freshman class, it would be difficult to envision Northwestern having this kind of success. Of Drohan’s nine everyday starters, four are first-years. Then, of course, there is Big Ten Freshman of the Year Danielle Williams, who is not an everyday position player but usually pitches twice per weekend and has accumulated a 27-5 record and 1.46 ERA.
“They have a great skill set,” Drohan said. “They came in with some great experience at the youth level, and at the high school level they were very, very well coached. And they’re great competitors. Every time the game and our program has asked something from them, they have stepped up. What’s been really fun for us as a program is to see how coachable they are and how invested in learning they are.”
This year’s class was ranked by FloSoftball.com as the ninth-best in the country. Of the eight-player group, half were ranked in the nation’s top 45 recruits: Skyler Shellmyer (25), Nikki Cuchran (30), Danielle Williams (44) and Jordyn Rudd (45). Drohan said all eight, though, have played an instrumental role in the team’s success this season.
The three team leaders in RBI are Rudd, Cuchran and Maeve Nelson — all of whom were named to the All-Big Ten Freshmen Team — and the five freshman who see significant playing time have driven in, all told, 134 of Northwestern’s 250 runs this season.
The entrance of several impact players, including a pitcher who was recently nominated as a top 26 finalist for USA Today College Softball Player of the Year, gives this team lineup and starting pitching depth it has not seen in a few years. Drohan has talked several times this season about the balance throughout the lineup, which would not be possible if the freshmen were not productive. She said, though, she isn’t surprised at how quickly they have contributed.
“They’ve won at every level they’ve played, and they came here to Northwestern to contribute right away,” she said. “I knew that our veterans and our leaders were going to do a great job welcoming them and teaching them the ropes.”
A squad with a balance of newcomers and those who have been around the block has made for a special dynamic that has helped the young players thrive and become comfortable in their first seasons.
“They’ve literally taught us everything,” freshman Maeve Nelson said of seniors Morgan Nelson (no relation), Lily Novak, and Kaley Winegarner. “The first day we were here, we were running around like our heads were cut off. Seriously....we were like little babies when we got here, and they’ve raised us up.”
Nelson and Nikki Cuchran took different approaches to potential positional battles, but each knew that they would have to earn every at bat or inning in the field.
“I don’t know if I expected to get [instant playing time], but I came in working hard, knew they needed a shortstop, and I knew that was my position to win,” Nelson said.
Cuchran, who typically starts as the designated player, arrived more unsure but just as ready to work.
“I came in with a mindset that was like ‘I don’t have a position at all, and it’s my position to earn,’” Cuchran said. Hitting .303 with 32 RBIs, she has certainly earned her way into the cleanup spot.
Along with Rudd, Nelson and Cuchran also make up the top three on the team in batting average, and both Williams and Shellmyer have come up with clutch hits in huge moments. Nelson and Cuchran said the constant drilling of learning to be patient and the feeling of a more composed approach taking root has translated to the field.
“I think their poise and their softball IQ and understanding how to hit good pitching and control an at bat has been great,” Drohan said. “They know how to get rid of pitches they don’t want, how to be aggressive when they need to and how to be a little more patient when they need to, so that’s an area where they’ve really blossomed.”
Importantly, according to Nelson, it’s not just what the coaches have taught them, but their faith in the intuitions and skill sets of the players.
“It means everything to see someone believing in you in the dugout,” she said. “They trust in all of us, and I think that gives us all the more freedom to do what we do.”
For all of the success these freshmen have had, the group did not get off to the easiest of starts. Nelson called them a bunch of opposites, with “eight different heads, eight ways of playing, and eight ways of thinking.” She said, and Cuchran immediately agreed, that the first trip of the spring season was the coming-together moment for the group.
“We got back at midnight and we were all so sad, we were like ‘we have so much work to do, we have school tomorrow,’” said Nelson. “We were all at Lisa’s, which if you don’t know is like the little diner on campus, and we were all sitting there so sad. But we were like ‘we’re doing it together, and that’s all that matters. We’re all going to get through this together.’ I think that was really the clicking point for us, when we realized we were all in this together.”
It’s not the only time the team has dealt with tough scheduling and academics colliding. Against Illinois, the mid-week doubleheader caused headaches for players getting to and from the game. According to Drohan, Rudd had to sprint from class to make a video session, another player had to leave midway through to make a class of her own and a third player was late to the game itself thanks to a coinciding lecture.
The freshmen knew what they signed up for, though, when they chose to attend Northwestern. Jokingly lowering her voice (“I know they’d give me a smirk if they heard!”), Nelson raved about the staff: “They are unlike any coaches I’ve had before and any other coaches I saw during my recruiting process...and now we’re here and they haven’t changed anything. They make you feel so important every day.”
Clearly the approach has worked: Drohan has another top-25 recruiting class, including the nation’s tenth-ranked prospect, pitcher Sydney Supple, arriving in Evanston this fall.
Drohan said she sells Northwestern to recruits by emphasizing the school’s prestigious academic environment and post-graduation success in players’ job placements as well as the consistent success of the program.
“I believe in this place,” she said. “You don’t have to compromise anything: you’re competing for a Big Ten championship, you’re competing for national championships, so I think there are a few schools across the country who can really offer both of those things and not compromise either.”
Despite a setback in the final series of the regular season last weekend against Minnesota, all of the goals the Wildcats have for 2019 are ahead of them.
First, they’ll gun for a rare Big Ten Tournament crown, with that quest beginning this Friday at 3:30 pm CT against either Penn State or Indiana. Regardless of that outcome, though, Northwestern will have a chance, with their newfound ace pitcher and lineup depth, to make some noise in the NCAA Tournament.
The success of the freshman class is undoubtedly what has taken the Wildcats to the next level during this record-breaking regular season. But Maeve Nelson and co. will continue to rely on the veterans surrounding them, who experienced the pain of losses to the Golden Gophers in the Big Ten Championship and Georgia in the regional final last year, to guide the way forward.
“We just need to follow them like little ducks,” Nelson said. “They’ll keep doing what they’re doing, and that will reciprocate to the rest of the freshmen and the rest of the team.”
If that reciprocation works the way it has all year, the Wildcats will find themselves playing deep into May.