After opening their season with 18 wins in their first 20 contests before sneaking into the NCAA Tournament following some spring struggles, the Northwestern Wildcats’ 2021 campaign has come to a close.
NU’s ‘Cats were sent packing after dropping two against the Tournament’s 14th-overall seed Kentucky, which first bested them 3-2 on Friday. In between their two defeats against UK, Kate Drohan’s team knocked the Miami-Ohio RedHawks out with a 7-1 victory on Saturday afternoon, but lacked the pitching and hitting to keep up with their SEC hosts in an elimination game later that day, falling 7-2.
In the regional opener, the story for NU was that of a late comeback that came up short. After falling behind 3-1 in the second inning, Northwestern both held Kentucky scoreless and was held scoreless for the near-duration of the game.
However, with two outs in the top of the seventh, Nikki Cuchran hit a double to reignite her team’s chances, and a throwing error on a ground ball hit by Mac Dunlap brought Cuchran in while leaving the tying run in scoring position. Skyler Shellmyer, who followed Dunlap at the plate, hit a chopper up the middle that nearly eluded the grasp of UK pitcher Autumn Humes, but the hosting ‘Cats’ ace was able to field the ball cleanly and fire over to first to retire Shellmyer and secure the win for her team.
With their backs against the wall on Saturday, the ‘Cats showed out against Miami-Ohio in the early afternoon game. Danielle Williams, who pitched the entirety of NU’s first game of the weekend, went the distance once again, allowing five hits and one earned run while striking out nine and walking one over seven innings of work against the RedHawks. Her offense provided her with more than enough support this time around, with a three-RBI double by Dunlap in the second and a grand slam by Cuchran in the fifth accounting for all seven of NU’s runs against Miami.
In what would become Northwestern’s final game of the season, first-year Lauren Boyd got the start in the circle. After holding the UK Wildcats — who hit first as the visiting team despite playing in their own stadium — scoreless in the first two innings, Boyd got some support on an RBI sacrifice fly by Dunlap in the bottom of the second, giving NU the lead. The next half inning, however, Kentucky capitalized on an error that extended the inning and gained the lead on a two-out, two-run double.
From that point forward, the favored hosts never looked back. After retiring the NU side in the third before a scoreless fourth for both teams, UK put up another two runs off of reliever Morgan Newport via a solo homer and a sac fly to extend their lead to 4-1 in the top of the fifth. While Newport drove in a run on a groundout the next half inning, the gap would only widen further, as the SEC’s team batting average title-holders plated another three runs against a much-fatigued Williams, who relieved Newport in the circle. When all was said and done, Kentucky was moving on to play another day with a 7-2 win, and Northwestern’s season was over.
NU didn’t fall twice to Kentucky — which wound up advancing to the Super Regional round against Alabama after shutting Notre Dame out over two games on Sunday — for lack of scoring opportunities. With runners in scoring position, Northwestern went a dismal 0-for-14 from the plate against UK. The responsibility for such lack of run-scoring production fell in part on the shoulders of Jordyn Rudd and Newport, the three and four hitters in the ‘Cats’ lineup, who went a combined 1-for-13 from the plate in the two games against Kentucky.
Even with the disappointing finish, Drohan expressed pride in her team for their efforts in an unusual season that saw the coach — now 20 years into her tenure at the helm of the program in Evanston — pass her predecessor, Sharon J. Drysdale, to become Northwestern’s winningest skipper ever.
“As women, as student-athletes, as college students, people in athletics, there are a lot of twists and turns to the year,” Drohan said. “I’m really proud of the way our team handled those moments.”