If Northwestern softball’s somewhat shaky start has engendered any concern within the program, it won’t be found within the head coach’s office.
Sitting at 4-5 after two weekends of top-tier competition, the Wildcats have flashed the ability to beat a top-five team while also looking unready, at times, to handle the expectations that have descended upon this rising program. But for now, at least, Kate Drohan is looking at the positives.
“Our best game so far has been against our highest-ranked opponent, so that’s no coincidence,” said the head coach. “This is a marathon, and we want sprinting at the end of the marathon, so we need to do this now so that we can play a really, really elite level.”
The Wildcats went 2-3 to open the season in Arizona and split four games in Clearwater, Florida, last weekend. However, NU scored a monumental win in a 6-2 victory over no. 5 Florida State, affirming fans’ beliefs that the ceiling for this team is high.
Still, Northwestern is 1-3 against ranked opponents and has dropped to 25th in the polls after starting the season 13th. While offense was a primary issue during weekend one, both Drohan and second baseman Rachel Lewis, who won Big Ten Player of the Week after amassing five extra base hits over the tournament, said it was the patience in pitch selection that made the bats more productive in weekend two.
“Even the late takes have been a lot better,” said the junior. “I think we were really anxious and ready to get out on the field the first week, so I think that a lot of that was like anxiety and people just really wanting to do more than they should have wanted to do in that moment, like instead of just taking what was given to them.”
As if the schedule NU has played hasn’t been tough enough, this weekend’s postseason-esque Mary Nutter Classic in Palm Desert, California, is only going to throw more impressive pitching at the Wildcat lineup. Lewis said a big focus for both herself and the team is trusting themselves even if they get down in the count and continuing to look for their pitches instead of bailing the pitcher out.
“It’s all about preparation,” she said. “We’re going to see some good pitching this weekend, some faster pitching than we’ve probably seen. Just trusting what we’ve done the whole offseason and this coming week, what we’ll be doing and just sticking to our plan and really trusting that we can hit whatever pitch.”
In 2019, Northwestern led the Big Ten in walks by a large margin, and by forcing opposing pitchers to throw strikes, the Wildcats often found themselves getting good pitches to hit with runners on base. More often than not, they made those opponents pay.
In NU’s three comebacks last weekend (they stormed back from a four-run deficit against VT on Sunday before succumbing in extra innings), first-years and veterans alike stepped into the batter’s box in key situations, and amassed similar results. First-year left fielder Gracie Huff registered five hits over the weekend, but undoubtedly her most significant base knock was the two-out infield single she beat out to set the stage for Lewis’ bases-clearing double against FSU.
“It’s amazing to know that I’m able to help the team however I can, in any situation,” said Huff, conducting her first ever media availability. “I know anybody on our team would be able to step up and do that. It was just the right timing, and I’m glad I was able to help out on the team.”
While the bats are beginning to mold back into the rigid discipline they displayed last year, the pitching staff — seen coming into the season as the clear strength of this team — has been uncharacteristically inconsistent. Last year’s overall staff ERA was a staggering 1.96, while through nine games this year that statistic is 3.37. In particular, Danielle Williams’ ERA is north of 4.50 after hovering around 1.50 last year.
Drohan said the entire staff is finding a balance after, as she saw it, coming over the heart of the plate too often in weekend one before allowing too many free passes last weekend with excess nibbling. Specifically, Williams flashed a dominant complete-game performance against the Seminoles but has allowed three or more earned runs in four other appearances.
“I thought she was really sharp [against Florida State], and she’s been battling it,” Drohan said. “She’s been a little up and down, and she’s working on on her consistency. She’s a workhorse, though. She just works, and she loves the competition. So I’m really proud of her and I have a lot of confidence in her.”
NU will have its hands full this weekend, facing three top-15 teams, including Washington, the nation’s second-ranked squad. Their weekend opener comes against Auburn, which is receiving votes and nipping at the heels of the poll.
Though it’s still the season’s first month, and the Wildcats knew these first few tournaments would be useful opportunities to test themselves and prepare for the conference haul, the final of three consecutive gauntlet weekends is a prime opportunity for Northwestern to make a signature statement.
“I think we are right there,” Huff said. “I think we have a lot of things that we’ve been working out this past weekend. We were so close, and I think that this weekend will be really helpful for the team to just be able to — because we’re playing our matchups — give it all we have, and we will be able to power through.”
Northwestern will tangle with Auburn at noon and #7 Florida at 5:00 on Friday, before a Saturday doubleheader consisting of undefeated #15 Oregon at 11:30 and Long Beach State at 2:00. To close things out, first pitch for their morning showdown with the Huskies is set for 11:00 on Sunday. All times are Central. All games will be broadcasted solely by FloSports.