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Softball: ‘Cats drop one, otherwise dominant on opening weekend

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Leesburg is still Evanston South.

The Northwestern Wildcats began their pursuit of a fourth-consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance (and perhaps more) this weekend in Leesburg, Fla. The Florida town — where the ‘Cats played their first 12 games of the 2021 season — was familiar, as was the success, as NU traveled home with four victories in its first five contests.

Rachel Lewis led the way for the Wildcats, recording a weekend batting average of .462 with 11 total bases and stealing five bags on five attempts. In the outfield, where she transitioned to begin this season after a starting in the middle infield through much of her career, she was flawless, recording five putouts and adding an assist without an error. Her efforts earned her Co-Big Ten Player of the Week honors.

Catcher Jordyn Rudd was also productive, driving in a whopping nine runs while hitting .385, featuring a team-high three doubles. Behind the plate, Rudd showed once again that she is not to be run on, throwing out two of the three opponents that attempted steals against Northwestern. In the circle, ace Danielle Williams got her first two wins of the season without any losses, striking out 26 batters and allowing just two earned runs in 16.1 innings of work across four appearances and two starts.

In the first leg of an opening day double-header, the ‘Cats eviscerated UConn, 8-0, to earn a run-rule victory five innings into the affair. Rudd started the season’s scoring for NU, driving in Maeve Nelson on a signature double down the line in the first, and reigning All-Big Ten First Teamer Skyler Shellmyer added another run on an RBI single to center in the second. Later on in the bottom of the fourth, Lewis crushed a grand slam over the left field wall to extend her team’s lead to 6-0.

Meanwhile, through five innings of work, Williams had fanned eight and allowed no runners across while facing just five batters above the minimum. After Hannah Cady furthered the lead to 7-0 in the bottom of the fifth via an RBI triple, Kendall Peterson brought Cady in and the game to a close on an RBI single.

That night, NU competed in its first clash against a ranked opponent, taking on No. 13 Virginia Tech. After singling her way aboard in the top of the first and getting to third, Shellmyer, quick as anyone on the roster, opened the scoring off by stealing home. The Hokies followed suit in the bottom of the inning, knotting things up at one on a sacrifice fly to right field. After both sides were scoreless in the second and NU was held without a run in the top of the third, VT pulled ahead on an RBI double and extended their lead through an RBI single off of NU starter Lauren Dvorak. Dvorak was making just her second career start, and finished with a stat line of 5.2 innings pitched, three earned runs on six hits and three strikeouts. Though Lewis scored in the top of the sixth on a grounder off the bat of Rudd to make it 3-2, the ‘Cats couldn’t complete the comeback and fell by one.

The next morning, Northwestern’s offense was back on full display in both legs of another doubleheader, the first of which featured a matchup with Akron. A six-run fifth inning highlighted an 11-run outing for the Wildcats against the Zips, who were simply no match in any aspect for the Drohan sisters’ team and fell 11-2. Sophomore Lauryn Boyd got the start for NU but lasted only two innings despite not allowing an earned run. Dvorak then pitched five innings — also not relinquishing an earned run — to secure the victory. At the plate, first-year Ayana Lindsey went 3-for-4 with two runs and two stolen bases as the designated hitter in her collegiate debut.

Later that day, NU took on No. 24 Liberty, hoping to avenge their loss from a night prior against a different ranked opponent out of Virginia with Williams in the circle. The ‘Cats were hot out of the gate, scoring four in the bottom of the first on a pair of two-RBI singles from Rudd and Nikki Cuchran. They added three more in the bottom of the fourth to make in 7-0. While the Flames struck back with their first two runs of the game on a Lou Allan homer in the top of the sixth, that’s as close as they’d get, as NU added an insurance run in the bottom of the inning and closed it out, 8-2, in the top of the seventh. Williams struck out 12 Flames over the course of her seven innings pitched.

To close out the weekend, the Wildcats faced Eastern Kentucky in the lowest-scoring affair of the slate. Dvorak got the start in the circle again and tossed three scoreless innings before Williams took over and finished the remaining four innings without allowing a run. NU gave up just three hits to the Colonels, while recording nine of their own to score four runs and finish off the weekend with another victory.

The successful trip to Florida moved the ‘Cats up slightly in the USA Today/NFCA poll, as they garnered 42 points in Tuesday’s edition, leaving them just three points out of the Top 25 as the first team out. They’ll return to the Sunshine State this weekend for the SPC Elite Invite in Clearwater, where they’ll take on Texas Tech, No. 3 UCLA, No. 15 Clemson, and No. 7 Oklahoma State.