The middle of February has arrived, the weather is getting progressively (if ever so slightly) warmer and the sun now sets after 5 p.m. in the City of Broad Shoulders. All of these things collectively send one signal: the Northwestern softball team is soon to return and spark up The J once again.
After a 2021 campaign that saw them slide narrowly into their third-consecutive NCAA Tournament, the ‘Cats are back for another go around with much of their most significant contributors from last year still on the roster. This year, though, they’ll have the added challenge of facing non-conference opponents, including two ranked foes in the upcoming opening weekend of play alone. With first pitch on the season scheduled for Friday afternoon in familiar Leesburg, Fla. against the UConn Huskies, here’s a complete preview of Kate and Caryl Drohan’s Wildcats:
After a slightly delayed start to the season and a Big Ten-wide shift to a conference-only regular season schedule, NU got off to a red hot start down in Leesburg, where they played their first 12 games while the midwestern winter thawed, winning all but one of their dozen matchups under the Florida sun. As their games moved out of the neutral site and back to Evanston and the campuses of their B1G rivals, the Wildcats’ success didn’t waver initially, as they swept their first home set of the year against Wisconsin — putting the Drohan twins atop the program’s all-time coaching wins list in the process. Additionally, they won their first series of the season at Maryland, giving them a conference-leading 18-2 record at the midway point.
Things soon soured for the ‘Cats, though, as a four-game sweep at the hands of Minnesota reversed momentum completely. While they took their next series in Iowa, which featured a perfect game from ace Danielle Williams, they then dropped three of four contests on the road against eventual conference champion Michigan. After splitting both of their next series against Illinois and Purdue teams that sat below them in the standings, their NCAA Tournament hopes sat in doubt. A season-closing series win over Nebraska — complete with a close victory on Selection Sunday — proved just enough to get the ‘Cats to the Big Dance. They were selected as a four-seed — a rare occurrence for an at-large, Power Five program — in the Lexington Regional.
In their first playoff game, Williams and Kentucky pitcher Autumn Humes — two of the best arms in the country — went toe-to-toe, each completing the game without relief. While NU got on the board, it was UK that came out on top, hanging on to win 3-2. With their backs against the wall the next day, the ‘Cats downed Miami of Ohio, 7-1, to temporarily extend their season. However, after pulling ahead in their rematch with Kentucky in the bottom of the second later that day, they relinquished the lead a half-inning later and never came back, falling 7-2 to end their up-and-down campaign.
Undoubtedly, the most significant contributor from the ‘Cats’ 2021 roster that’s not around for the 2022 run is pitcher and outfielder Morgan Newport. For the better part of the last five years, Newport has been a mainstay for the Wildcats, both in the lineup and in the circle. Last season, her contributions down the stretch were a major reason Northwestern wound up sneaking into the postseason, as she led the team with 10 home runs and 39 RBIs and was fourth among qualifying batters with an average of .304 while keeping her ERA at 2.44 and earning a win-loss of 6-3 as the team’s second-best pitcher on the way to Second Team All-Big Ten honors.
Aside from Newport, NU also lost Mac Dunlap in the offseason. Dunlap, who played in all 47 of the team’s games last year and started in 46 of them, was frequently DH’d for and accrued only 24 at bats in the 2021 season. Still, her steady glove at third base, quickness on the base paths and leadership in the dugout will be missed. Emma Bartz, who was a frequent pinch running selection and converted on all 11 of her steal attempts in 2021, also graduated.
The first of four First Team All-Big Ten returnees for NU, Lewis was an unanimous selection in 2021 and also made the conference’s defensive honors team, as well. In 2021, she led the team in OBP and OPS, reaching safely in nearly half of her plate appearances while homering seven times, led the conference in stolen bases by snagging 30 bags while only getting caught stealing twice, and was an elite defender at second base. Her possession of all five tools has made her a major contributor to the team and, perhaps, the most complete player on the roster.
The only pitcher of NU’s First Team players, Williams is entering the senior season of what has been one of the most illustrious careers any ‘Cat has had in the circle. After being named the NFCA National Freshman of the Year following a 2019 campaign during which she boasted a 1.55 ERA, the California native then opened up her only full season since with a 30 inning scoreless streak in 2021. While she eventually did allow some runs, she was still NU’s ace throughout the year, recording the first seven-inning perfect game for the program since 1984 and closing the season with seven shutouts in her 24 starts. With Newport gone, even more pressure will be placed on Williams to succeed as the bulk innings pitcher on the team.
Another balanced (and First Team All-Big Ten) player on a roster full of them, Shellmyer led the team and finished fourth in the conference with a batting average of .360 in 2021, all while making countless highlight plays in center field and stealing 14 bases on 15 attempts. Come for her gritty and athletic play style, stay for her celebratory antics.
You guessed it, Rudd was also First Team All-Big Ten in 2021. As the team’s starting catcher, she’s been a valuable backstop and an intimidating arm, catching 10 runners stealing in 2021 alone. At the plate, she drove in the second-most runs on the team with 29 while tying for the team lead in doubles with 11.
The return of non-conference play will undoubtedly test the ‘Cats, who are unranked according to the USA Today/NFCA Coaches Poll but are considered the No. 23 team in the nation by D1Softball.com. NU will face No. 13 Virginia Tech in the second of its two opening day games and take on No. 24 Liberty in one of its two contests on Saturday. The true gauntlet, though, will await them next weekend, when they face No. 3 UCLA, No. 15 Clemson and No. 5 Oklahoma State on consecutive days as a part of the SPC Elite Invite. Things won’t ease up a week later, when they take on No. 7 Washington and No. 18 Oregon, among other opponents, at the Mary Nutter Classic in Palm Desert, Calif.
Later on, NU will face No. 11 Missouri in Columbia as part of the Missouri Tournament before returning to Sharon J. Drysdale Field to begin Big Ten play with a series against Michigan State that begins on March 25. The defending conference champion No. 16 Michigan come to Evanston the next week before the Wildcats wander over for a single game at Notre Dame the following Tuesday. From there, their schedule cools down a little, facing less prestigious B1G sides before a regular season-closing series at Minnesota, which finished second in the conference in 2021.
The Big Ten Tournament is scheduled for May 12-14, with Selection Sunday coming a day after its conclusion. Returning to the NCAA Tournament for a fourth-consecutive time is no guarantee for the Wildcats given their challenging non-conference slate. However, provided their All-Big Ten leaders replicate the success they collectively experienced a year ago and some new stars emerge (particularly on the pitching front following the departure of Newport), the purple and white could get back to the Big Dance once more. And given the way their season came to a close a year ago, you could say that they’ll be playing with a chip... er... well, whatever snack is present on their shoulder.