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No. 21 Northwestern softball set to take on top competition in Clearwater

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The ‘Cats will be looking to improve upon their anxious start against some of the best teams in the country.

via NUSports.com

With a difficult Kajikawa Classic behind them, No. 21 Northwestern softball (2-3) looks to redeem itself and its elite status against a stacked schedule in Florida. The ‘Cats will play in the high-profile ESPN Clearwater/St. Pete Tournament this weekend, where they will face No. 15 Georgia, Kansas, No. 5 Florida State and Virginia Tech. Each game will be shown on ESPN3.

Northwestern dropped seven spots in the rankings this week after its challenging opening weekend in Arizona. The Wildcats battled tough, losing one-run games on late, go-ahead three-run home runs twice – two plays with major consequences.

“When you’re playing the schedule we’re playing, there’s a really small margin of victory,” head coach Kate Drohan said this week. “One pitch can determine the game. One swing of the bat can determine the game. That’s the nature of elite level softball. For our team to have the opportunity to learn how to play in that context, that’s really valuable.”

With their impressive reputation comes high expectations, and the ‘Cats certainly felt the pressure early on. While they were able to turn the weekend around somewhat, the nerves got the best of them in their first three matchups, especially on the offensive side of the ball.

And against the type of competition that Northwestern has scheduled in non-conference play, with eight ranked teams among their first 16 opponents (including two that they already lost to in #12 Tennessee and #23 Arizona State, and not including the solid Utah team that edged them as well), those nerves will cost them otherwise relatively evenly-matched games.

“We started off the year a little antsy and anxious, trying to do too much, swinging out of the zone like crazy,” Drohan added. “Our pitch selection was not good. It just took us a couple of games to settle in. I think that’s what we saw. There was a real shift, and I could even feel it in the dugout during the pregame between the Tennesee and the ASU game [where the Wildcats scored five runs, more than in their first three games combined]. I think our leaders did a great job in helping the team recover.”

The in-weekend offensive improvement was led by sophomore Jordyn Rudd, who paved the way for the rest of the struggling lineup throughout all five games. The reigning first team All-Big Ten catcher had seven hits, five RBIs, a home run and posted a batting average of .412 on the weekend.

On the defensive side, Kenna Wilkey and Danielle Williams split most of the time in the circle. Wilkey finished 1-1, including a phenomenal two-hit shutout of a Seattle team that hit .309 last year to earn Northwestern’s first win, and Williams had a surprisingly tough 0-2 start following her record-setting freshman campaign last year, though she did earn a save against Portland State. Both pitchers struggled keeping the ball in the park, allowing six total home runs on the weekend.

While there is work to be done, Northwestern has the chance to redeem itself against four more power conference opponents. The Wildcats will start their weekend on Friday against No. 15 Georgia. The Bulldogs started their season a perfect 6-0 against lower-level competition, winning each game via the run rule.

Next, Northwestern will face Kansas on Saturday. The Jayhawks started their season with a rough 1-4 record against tough competition in the Kajikawa Classic alongside NU last weekend. They fell to No. 4 Arizona, along with the trio of teams that defeated the ‘Cats. Kansas is plagued with an even more challenging schedule this week, taking on a whopping five ranked teams. As the Jayhawks’ fourth ranked matchup of the weekend, Northwestern will get to face a likely worn-down, lesser-skilled opponent.

Later that day, the ‘Cats will take on their toughest matchup of the young season: No. 5 Florida State. The Seminoles had a stellar 5-0 start to their year last weekend, defeating No. 2 Alabama twice. They showed incredible offensive ability, defeating Detroit Mercy by a total of 34-0 across two games. Northwestern will have to bring its A-game against this blazing hot FSU team.

Finally, NU will face a 4-1 Virginia Tech squad on Sunday who had a light start to its schedule. The Hokies’ only defeat was a one-run loss to Iowa despite beating the Hawkeyes 9-1 on opening day.

Ultimately, if Northwestern can maintain its higher level of play from the Arizona State and Portland State games, the team has a shot at coming away with some big wins for its resumé this weekend.

After last year’s explosion back on to the scene, the reining regional champs know they aren’t the perpetual underdogs anymore. Still, as last weekend indicated, that reality combined with a tough schedule right out of the gate requires an adjustment period.

“We need to get used to being chased and not being the chaser,” Drohan said. “We need to get used to seeing everyone’s number one. We’re not sneaking up on anyone, and that’s okay. We need to learn how to be that team now.”

Northwestern certainly has the talent and base of success to take the next step they believe they can take. With a national spotlight on them this weekend, they will have the chance to kickstart that process.

The ‘Cats will face off against No. 15 Georgia on Friday at 2:00 p.m. to start things off. You can catch the game, like every other over the next three days, on ESPN3.