Take a team that won nearly 50 games last year, graduate just two contributors, and add to it the number 21 recruiting class in the country that happens to feature the #3 prospect in the nation. Alright, sound like a good place to start?
Since last season ended, the buzz around Northwestern Softball has been real. Coming off of a revival of a year that featured a program-record 21 Big Ten wins, a 20-game midseason win streak and the first NCAA Regional hosted in Evanston in over a decade, there’s reason to be excited about what 2020 has in store for Kate Drohan’s Wildcats.
14th-ranked (via the preseason Coaches Poll) Northwestern is led by its pitching staff, the crown jewel of which is 2019 National Freshman of the Year Danielle Williams. The California native is complemented by the entire staff from last year and top recruit Sydney Supple.
With only left fielder Morgan Nelson and first baseman Lily Novak moving on, the Wildcat lineup, both offensively and defensively, likely won’t look all that different either, though there is slightly more potential for change.
For now, let’s talk about just how phenomenal last season was for a bit:
2019 Season Review
The Wildcats rose quickly. Following a year of rebirth that included a trip to the NCAA Tournament, NU took the emphatic next step. Led by a phenomenal class of freshmen, this team won the games it was supposed to, and many more, finishing 47-13 (21-2 Big Ten). After losses to some of the country’s top teams in early-season tournaments, the ‘Cats headed into conference play with momentum, and oh did they ride it.
Northwestern won its first 20 Big Ten games and went 25-1 from mid-March to early May, including an undefeated April. The times were good both at Sharon J Drysdale Field and on the road, as Williams kept racking up the wins and the team continued to grow stronger. They eventually broke into the polls in mid-April at no. 23, and they rose to as high as fourteenth in the country.
By that point, it was early May and the Wildcats faced some of their toughest competition yet. After stealing a win at no. 8 Minnesota on the back of a Danielle Williams gem, they suffered a series loss in Minneapolis. As the number two seed in the Big Ten Tournament, they fell to those same Gophers in the semifinals.
However, the loss didn’t deny them from securing a top-sixteen overall seed, which meant they’d be hosting a NCAA Tournament Regional for the first time since 2008. The atmosphere at the J was electric, and Northwestern overcame a loss to pesky Louisville to win the Regional and advance to the Super Regional to take on no. 1 Oklahoma.
After losing twice by mercy rule to the Sooners early in the season, NU was facing Goliath. Despite a valiant fight in game one, the ‘Cats were simply overmatched and bowed out in two games to end their season.
“We had an opportunity to win a couple of championships last year and we didn’t,” said head coach Kate Drohan. “So there’s a real focus and a real hunger starting September 15, when we came together to get back to work.”
Northwestern graduated just two players after last season since senior pitcher Kaley Winegarner was able to get a medical redshirt. The ‘Cats, as mentioned above, will be tasked with replacing first baseman Lily Novak and left fielder Morgan Nelson.
Nelson brought her keen eye to the plate, and the rest of the team followed. She led the Wildcats with a .482 on-base percentage and finished second in the conference in walks with 48. She critically scored runs in NU’s two wins over Louisville to win the Evanston Regional.
Novak is still with the program as a graduate student manager. She held down the fort at first base with a .988 fielding percentage and drove in 41 runs at the plate. Not known for her power, she remained a clutch hitter throughout her career, notably ripping a walk-off home run to complete the ‘Cats’ sweep of no, 25 Wisconsin in April.
If you somehow aren’t already excited about the prospects of this team, maybe this will help. Her name is Sydney Supple, and she is the number three-ranked recruit in America. She is a pitcher to add to the pitching staff that includes the reigning National Freshman of the Year. There.
NU should have no problem filling the void left by the two graduates, as it welcomes seven first-years: Emelia Farnam, Grace Huff, Makenna Nelson (sister of Morgan, unrelated to Maeve), Kendall Peterson, Ashley Schultz, Supple, and Angela Zedak. Supple, Schultz and Zedak were ranked in the top 50 at the time of signing day.
Some notables: Supple is twice the Wisconsin Softball Player of the Year and went 25-2 with nine shutouts as a junior. Schultz hit nearly .500 for her high school career and holds the school record in career home runs. Peterson played club softball with Zedak and Farnam. Grace Huff owns her school’s record for RBIs in a season with 66.
Zedak posted 37 wins and 37 home runs in her first three seasons. The power-hitting freshman, listed as a utility player on the Northwestern roster, seems like one of the most likely players to potentially step into the open first base slot.
2020 Season Outlook
The 14th-ranked Wildcats pick up exactly where they finished last year. Fourteenth is the highest they’ve been ranked in the preseason since 2009 (when they were coming off a WCWS appearance), and they will be tested early. Eight of their first 16 games come against ranked teams, notably including contests against No. 1 Washington and No. 3 Oklahoma.
Drohan made it clear to the media that while these games provide learning opportunities for her still-young team, they are still significant.
“These games have such a tremendous impact on what kind of opportunities will have later on in the season and what that path will look like,” she said.
Northwestern will once again face some of the country’s best in conference play. Big Ten usual suspects Minnesota (8), Michigan (17) and Wisconsin (25) are all ranked in the preseason top 25 poll. Fortunately for the Wildcats, who play all three teams thanks to the Big Ten’s new past success-based scheduling model, the series against Minnesota and Michigan are both at home.
Despite the tough competition NU will face early on, this season may turn out to be more about the ‘Cats than even some of their best opponents. A year after winning nearly 50 games, the core of producers returns a year older and a year more experienced, while some of the incoming first years, at least, could have an impact similar to last year’s freshmen.
“I’ve been saying the same thing this year that I said last year,” Drohan said. “It’s not about how old they are, it’s about their maturity. And so we’ve really challenged them to understand the game, to understand our system and to be able to handle the moment.”
Northwestern should be able to feel confident in its pitching staff in every game. The entire 2019 staff is back, and will be adding Supple. Led by Williams, who went 31-8 with a 1.55 ERA, and aided by second starter Kenna Wilkey, outfielder/reliever Morgan Newport, and the aforementioned Winegarner, the Wildcats compiled a 1.95 staff ERA last season with 33 complete games. Williams also showed she was no pushover at the plate, batting .258 and constantly helping her own cause with timely hits and RBIs.
“I think a real strength that we’re looking to build on is the depth of our pitching,” the head coach added. “We have six pitchers right now on our staff who have really, really worked hard and challenged themselves to add a different dimension or to build on their strengths. We’re excited about using that team within a team so to speak, to use those matchups and those combinations so so we can we can be ready when they hit.”
As for the lineup and everyday players, Rachel Lewis is looking to regain her All-American form from her freshman season. Last year, she flashed her power and led the team with 14 home runs but hit just .228 and struggled in the latter half of the season, despite leading the conference in walks and providing her share of timely hits. If the Wildcats can get increased production out of second base, that would mean a lot.
Jordan Rudd, who caught all 60 games behind the plate as a first-year, remains one of the team’s most important players, whether that is due to her chemistry with Williams or her bat, which led NU in both batting average and RBIs. Nikki Cuchran and Maeve Nelson round out the sophomores known for their offense, while Skyler Shellmyer returns her swagger and athletic defense to center field.
The aforementioned Newport returns a reliability to right field, while defensive specialist Mac Dunlap looks likely to remain a mainstay at the hot corner. With only two spots to fill, the Wildcat defense, one of the best in not only the conference but the country last season, looks ready to keep up its high level of play.
“If we want to be the best, we have to play the best and beat the best,” Rudd said. “We feel like we have a target on our back this year in a really good way. Whereas last year, we kind of felt like we were sneaking up on people versus this year, there’s no surprises. So we’re really excited for those opportunities.”
The sense of opportunity radiates throughout this team, but both players and coaches have been careful not to equate last year’s success with premature results in 2020.
“Our attitude right now about last year is we learned a lot last year and we got some key experience, but none of those wins or shutouts, or home runs count for this year,” said Drohan.
While none of it counts just yet, Northwestern’s experience, talent and depth converge in ways that should instill hope in fans. With one of the deepest pitching staffs in the Big Ten and nation, as well as a lineup that can force pitchers to hit the tightest of spots, NU has the tools to run even deeper than they did in 2019.
“Last year was fun and all, but we didn’t do what we wanted to do,” Drohan said. “So we have work ahead of us. I think our young players are ready for the moment. I think our young players came here to have that kind of opportunity. And I don’t think that that moment will be too big for them.”