After a tumultuous regular season campaign that featured a triumphant first half followed by a shaky close, the Northwestern Wildcats have made their way into the NCAA Tournament for a third consecutive full season.
The ‘Cats, who posted a 29-15 record against a schedule of exclusively Big Ten opponents, were announced Sunday night as the four-seed in the Lexington Regional. They’ll face off against the hosting 39-13 Kentucky Wildcats in their first postseason game on Friday at 11:00 a.m. CDT. Miami (OH) and Notre Dame make up the rest of the four team pool for the double elimination tournament that will be held next weekend.
NU was one of only three Big Ten teams selected, along with champion Michigan and runner-up Minnesota. The ‘Cats had been flying high atop the conference standings with an 18-2 record before they were swept by the Golden Gophers the weekend of April 9 and dropped three of four to the Wolverines two weeks later. From there, NU never regained the dominant stature they held early on. They split series with Illinois and Purdue — two teams below them in the standings — before closing with a series win against Nebraska that was secured with a 6-5 victory on Sunday.
Their less-impressive latter season performance — alongside the strength-of-schedule disadvantage they faced by nature of being in the Big Ten, which limited its teams to in-conference play — made their selection into the tournament an incredibly close call. Power Five teams are very rarely relegated to four-seed status, so the Wildcats’ seeding suggests they made the cut by the slimmest of margins.
Northwestern’s pitching staff will have its hands full trying to contain UK’s bats. Kentucky led the Southeastern Conference with a team batting average of .329 this season. Catcher Kayla Kowalik has been particularly impressive for the Wildcats, with a stunning .505 batting average that sits 78 points ahead of the SEC’s next best hitter.