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Softball: NU bests Nebraska in three of four, sneaks into the NCAA Tournament

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Phew.

John Konstantaras

Despite having to wait longer than expected on Selection Sunday, the Northwestern Wildcats are going dancing, and if their seeding is indicative of anything, their series win over Nebraska to close the regular season was crucial.

On Sunday afternoon, the ‘Cats bested the Huskers 6-5 to secure their third win in the teams’ four contests against each other, and a few hours later were selected as the four-seed in the Lexington Regional. Their placement opposite Kentucky — the tournament’s 14th highest-ranked team — suggests that the NCAA considered them better than roughly 13 other tournament teams, though that number isn’t precise due to geographic guidelines surrounding regional arrangement. Of the 13 four-seeds playing higher-ranked one-seeds than UK, 11 were automatic bids, which implies that Northwestern was given one of the final at-large bids to the Tournament.

Coming off of two consecutive series splits — their most recent against a mediocre Purdue team — the ‘Cats were desperate to get back to their winning ways against UNL. In the first game of the series, they did just that. Danielle Williams took to the circle for the ‘Cats and pitched her 11th complete game of the season, fanning a season-high 13 batters and allowing a lone run on a solo homer by the Huskers’ Tristen Edwards in the fifth inning.

The Wildcat offense brought in five runs in the second inning on homers by Morgan Newport and Angela Zedak and RBI singles off the bats of Skyler Shellmyer and Rachel Lewis to provide Williams with an early cushion. They’d add an additional run on a solo shot from senior Mac Dunlap and take the first game, 6-1.

In the first of two games on Saturday, the ‘Cats were even more dominant. First-year Lauren Boyd got the start for NU and tossed four innings, allowing one earned run on four hits and three walks. Sydney Supple closed out the game pitching two innings of hitless and scoreless relief.

For the second straight day, the NU offense put five runs on the board in the second inning, this time off a two-RBI single by Nikki Cuchran, an RBI walk issued to Jordyn Rudd and a two-run double from Newport. They brought in an additional four runs, the last of which came on an RBI double from Supple that invoked the NCAA’s eight-run mercy rule in the sixth inning.

In the latter contest of the doubleheader, NU again took an early lead, driving in two runs in the third on an RBI double by Rudd and an RBI single from Newport before adding another on an error by Edwards in the fourth. Through four innings, Williams had avoided any and all damage on the mound.

But in the top of the fifth, the Huskers’ bats put some major dents into the Wildcats’ lead with two solo homers that brought the score to 3-2. While the ‘Cats would add another run in the bottom of the inning on some baserunning trickery that resulted in Lewis stealing home, things soon fell apart for them. UNL pulled within a run of NU once more in the top of the sixth on an RBI single by second baseman Cam Ybarra. Then, down to their last out in the top of the seventh and still trailing by one, Ybarra hit another single, this time driving in two runs that gave the Cornhuskers a 5-4 advantage. Courtney Wallace, the Huskers’ starting pitcher, retired the NU side in the bottom of the seventh and secured her team’s comeback victory.

Newport, a graduate student who made the decision to stay at NU for an extra year after her senior season was cut short by the pandemic, got the start at pitcher in the series and regular season finale. The Huskers and ‘Cats traded blows throughout the game, with UNL drawing first blood off a run in the first that was answered by an RBI single by Supple in the bottom of the second. In the bottom of the third, Newport provided herself with some support, launching a moonshot two-run homer over the Sharon J. Drysdale Field video board to give the ‘Cats a 3-1 lead.

The next half inning, the Cornhuskers evened the score on a two-RBI single by shortstop Billie Andrews. Another half inning later, the ‘Cats regained the lead with an RBI single by Rudd. In the bottom of the fifth, they scored two more runners from an RBI double by Supple and a groundout by Dunlap. Those insurance runs would prove to be essential, as Newport gave up solo homers in both the sixth and seventh innings, but was able to close out the Huskers’ side without surrendering the lead. In the final at-bat of the game — the last of Newport’s career on the Evanston home field — she struck out UNL’s Peyton Glatter to finalize NU’s 6-5 win.

The Wildcats finished the regular season with a 29-15 record, good for third in the Big Ten. In the end, they were two games back of the conference’s runners-up — the Minnesota Golden Gophers — who had the same number of wins but four fewer losses. They’ll begin postseason play in Lexington on Friday at 11 a.m. CT against Kentucky, with Notre Dame and Miami (OH) comprising the rest of the regional field.