Following one of the best seasons in program history, Northwestern softball struggled to replicate the same caliber of play and match the extremely high expectations that were set for their 2020 campaign over the non-conference portion of the year. A difficult schedule proved to be even more of a slog than it looked like on paper, and, thanks to coronavirus, Kate Drohan’s squad never got their chance to fully bounce back.
Coming into this season, the ‘Cats were ranked 14th in the nation, the team’s highest preseason ranking since 2009. They had reeled in the No. 21 recruiting class in the country, featuring three top 50 recruits and the No. 3 prospect in the nation. Additionally, they only lost two seniors last season. So understandably, team expectations were especially high.
However, when the Wildcats’ 2020 season was cut short, they sat just below .500, owning an 11-12 record on the brink of conference play. In its first 23 games, Northwestern struggled to find consistency in weekly road trips that saw them face off against a wide, but largely impressive range of competition. The team was challenged with nine ranked matchups early on and, at times, couldn’t hold up under the pressure.
While they were dealt a difficult hand in having to face off against teams like then-No. 5 Florida State, then-No. 5 Oklahoma and No. 2 Washington, the ‘Cats also struggled against solid unranked foes, dropping games to Utah, Virginia Tech, Auburn and Louisville.
Ultimately, it was a lack of consistency that plagued Northwestern early in its prematurely-ended season. However, after losing more games than they won in their first three tournaments, the ‘Cats finally came away with back-to-back three-win weekends in the Oklahoma and Louisville Invitationals and showed signs of improvement heading intro conference play.
Through the short five weeks that was Northwestern’s 2020, a few stars began to emerge. On the offensive end, Maeve Nelson, Jordyn Rudd and Rachel Lewis led the way. While Danielle Williams led the team among players who appeared in at least 75 percent of games with a batting average of .286, the other three were the most prolific at the dish as a whole.
Rudd led the team with 22 RBIs and tied the junior second baseman for the most hits at 19. Lewis also scored the most runs on the team with 22, and Nelson led the ‘Cats by crushing seven pitches for home runs this season.
Defensively, six pitchers took the mound this year. Graduate student Kaley Winegarner was able to medically redshirt and posted a solid 4-0 record in what may well serve as the end to her long, injury-plagued career. She appeared in 10 games, started five and led the team with a 1.62 ERA.
Following one of the best pitching seasons from a freshman in Northwestern history, Williams appeared in 15 games with nine starts against some of the toughest competition NU faced. Last year’s NFCA Freshman of the Year finished with a 4-6 record and struggled against ranked opponents, posting a 3.57 ERA overall to more than double her mark from last year. However, she still managed to lead the team with 86 strikeouts – almost four times as many as any other Wildcat pitcher.
Ultimately, Northwestern’s shortened season left many unanswered questions for how the remainder of the year would’ve turned out. While the record may not show it, the ‘Cats came away with a handful of special moments that showed how competitive they can continue to be going forward.
Their 6-5 loss to No. 22 Arizona State, their impressive 6-2 win over No. 5 Florida State, their 3-2 battle with No. 2 Washington (though it resulted in a loss) and their whopping 14 runs against Oakland in the final game of the season all showed promising signs for success in conference play, especially given a favorably back-loaded schedule.
Northwestern was in the process of working out the kinks, which exactly what the nonconference slate is made for and could’ve helped turned the season around during Big Ten action. As shown through their 20-game win streak during last season’s conference schedule, Northwestern thrives in Big Ten play, and the ‘Cats seemed ready to bring that to bear once again.
While the abrupt end to this season was heartbreaking for the team and its four seniors especially (though signs currently indicate that each of the four would be able to play again next year if they wish, nothing has been finalized), they have an especially strong young core that will continue to carry Northwestern softball to success and into the national spotlight again next season.