In Kate and Caryl Drohan’s 20th season at the head of the program, Wildcat softball kicks off their season this weekend with six games in Leesburg, Florida to begin a marathon 12 week, 44-game Big Ten schedule that will encompass the whole of the regular season.
Doubleheaders today against Michigan State, tomorrow against Rutgers, and Sunday against Penn State begin this incredibly unique runout of games in style, as Northwestern tries to build on its 2019 super regional appearance after a volatile start to the 2020 season was cut short by the coronavirus pandemic.
Losing just three players (and no starters) from last year’s squad, and still boasting eight of the ten starters from that 2019 team, the Wildcats should have both the talent and the experience to put together a special season against a full slate of solid, if unspectacular conference competition.
After the program’s best season in a decade in 2019, a year that boasted a winning percentage over .900 in Big Ten play, nearly 50 total wins, and a regional championship, Northwestern regressed against a difficult non-conference slate in the early part of the 2020 season.
Despite minimal on-field losses, every standout first year from 2019 took a step back statistically between the two seasons, though the tougher overall competition likely played a role in that. The Wildcats lost an inordinate number of close games, ace Danielle Williams saw her ERA increase by more than two runs, and offensive inconsistency plagued the entire squad en route to an 11-12 record, with the season coming to an abrupt halt just before the conference schedule was set to kick off.
Only two significant on-field contributors from the 2020 squad opted not to take advantage of another year of potential eligibility. Understandably, fifth-year senior Kaley Winegarner, who dealt with multiple ACL tears over the course of her resilient Northwestern career, chose to move on rather than pursue a sixth season. But with would-be senior Kenna Wilkey off the official 2021 roster as well for unknown reasons, the Wildcats are left with a hole in their rotation.
Winegarner, a revelation in her sadly shortened final season, was NU’s most consistent starter prior to the shutdown, pitching her way to a 4-0 record across 30⅓ innings, and compiling an ERA of just 1.62 in the process, the lowest on the team by far. Wilkey, the second starter on that 2019 team, reprised the role in 2020 with mixed, but relatively positive results. Despite a 2-4 record, the Illinois native managed an ok 3.27 ERA across 30 innings of her own.
With both hurlers gone, a lot will fall onto the shoulders of the two returning starters: the aforementioned Williams, and rising sophomore (and, full disclosure, Inside NU contributor) Sydney Supple. Supple, an elite recruit out of high school, showed plenty of promise in her 22⅓ innings last season, but will need to up her strikeout rate and rely a bit less on the defense around her to assure consistent success.
Williams, meanwhile, dealt with slight control issues but also just gave up a ton of sharp contact, with 20 extra base hits against her in 63 innings. That’s the most important number to watch as the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year attempts to eliminate her sophomore slump.
Other options in the circle include grad student Morgan Newport, returning for a fifth season as Northwestern’s starting right fielder and offspeed specialist reliever, Lauren Dvorak, a largely untested junior, and true first year Lauren Boyd, who the coaching staff thinks of quite highly. Should the Wildcats need a sixth arm, Angela Zedak, who only played the field last season but was a standout pitcher in high school, could potentially offer her services from the rubber as well.
Everyone else. No, seriously, each field player except backup catcher Eva Stees, who graduated, is back for the ‘Cats and ready for action. For Northwestern’s lineup to see a return to the potency they showed in 2019, though, the order will have to display some top-to-bottom consistency.
Though no qualified hitter batted above .300 in the abbreviated season, shortstop Maeve Nelson, second baseman Rachel Lewis, and the aforementioned Newport anchored things, putting together OPSes (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage, for those unaware) of 1.015, .909, and .897 respectively against more difficult competition, by and large, than the Wildcats will face in 2020.
But Nikki Cuchran and, particularly, stalwart catcher Jordyn Rudd went through rough patches, limiting the lineup’s effectiveness, and the Drohans struggled to find consistency at the bottom of the order. Williams and first year Gracie Huff were largely solid, but defensive aces Mac Dunlap and Skyler Shellmyer did not impress in the at bats they took when not relegated to the role of defensive specialist.
The lineup appears largely set, but within that, there is plenty of work for this team to do offensively. On the other side of the ball, one of the best defensive teams in the country in 2019 backslid only the tiniest possible amount, with one major exception: Nelson, who committed a whopping 12 errors in 23 games en route to an abysmal .800 fielding percentage. If the junior can clean up her glove work and the rest of this experienced defense stays solid, the ‘Cats should be able to help their pitchers plenty going forward.
The Big Ten has some good teams, but it is not an elite softball conference. Northwestern should have the talent and coaching to hang right with Michigan and Minnesota in the conference’s presumptive top tier, just as they have ever since I got on campus four years ago. An NCAA Tournament appearance is a reasonable expectation, though things may get tricky with the conference-only schedules and general uncertainty, and building the resumé necessary to host a regional will be difficult given the unproven nature of much of the conference.
The Gophers and Wolverines should both be extremely good competition, and there will be plenty of teams nipping at Northwestern’s heels, but heading into 2021, the Wildcats are undoubtedly honed in on the top of the standings as they try to build on the success of 2019.