Heading into a weekend at the St. Pete Clearwater Elite Invitational, the task ahead of the Northwestern Wildcats was undoubtedly a tough one.
Faced with four matchups against Power Five opponents — three of which were ranked, including then No. 3 UCLA, last season’s national runner-up — in the span of just three days, the ‘Cats were set to be tested in a way they hadn’t in the regular season since the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. Despite falling late in their final bout of the invitational, most would still say that they passed their trial with flying colors, winning three of the games including an extra-innings affair with the highly-regarded Bruins.
Things got started on Friday morning, when Northwestern began its run in Clearwater with the first leg of a doubleheader against Texas Tech, its only unranked foe of the weekend. Lauren Dvorak started at pitcher for the Wildcats but tossed only two innings, giving up two runs (both earned) before being pulled for Sydney Supple, who made her debut and pitched 3.1 innings, allowing four earned runs.
Scoring in a variety of ways, including through nifty base running, the Wildcats never trailed the Red Raiders, and Danielle Williams came in to relieve Supple for the final 1.2 defensive innings for NU, cementing a 9-6 victory for Kate Drohan’s team and earning her first save of the season in the process.
Williams then got right back in the circle to start Northwestern’s second game of the day, the highly-anticipated clash with then-No. 3 UCLA. After getting off to a shaky start in the top of the first, she settled in and was able to limit the damage to only one run. The Bruins maintained that one-run advantage for the first half of the game, with pitcher Megan Faraimo shutting NU out through the four innings of play.
The fifth inning was a loud one, with the Bruins first extending their lead to 2-0 on an Aaliyah Jordan RBI double before the Wildcats struck back, earning their first run of the game on a single from Nikki Cuchran. The next inning, after Williams kept UCLA from adding to its lead, the ‘Cats tied things up on a solo homer to center from reigning Big Ten Co-Player of the Week Rachel Lewis. After neither team managed to get a run across in the seventh, the pitcher’s duel entered extra innings.
In the top of the eight, the Bruins grabbed a two-run advantage through a sacrifice fly and a Kinsley Washington solo shot. Down to their last out in the bottom of the inning and with two runners on, the Wildcats were kept alive by a Jordyn Rudd single that bounced off the glove of a UCLA middle infielder, which brought in a run that put them back within one. On the next at bat, Maeve Nelson made history, fouling off several pitches before drilling a three-run walk-off home run to complete the comeback upset.
While the UCLA win was certainly enthralling, the Wildcats showed no signs of a let down the next day when they took on the then-No. 15 Clemson Tigers. It was a dominant showing for NU and Williams, who once again started in the circle and wound up tossing a complete game shutout in which she struck out 11 batters and faced only four over the minimum. Behind 1) an RBI single from Nelson, 2) a groundout from Cuchran that scored one, 3) a two-run homer from Angela Zedak, 4) a single from Skyler Shellmyer that wound up scoring two after Clemson’s Sam Russ erred and 5) another score via error, the ‘Cats cruised to a 7-0 victory.
Sunday’s battle with then No. 7 Oklahoma State seemed to be going just as the Wildcats’ blowout of the Tigers had, as NU pulled ahead 3-0 in the first inning on a pair of singles from Zedak and Cuchran. The Cowgirls began to chip away in the bottom of the third as Williams allowed a solo shot off the bat of Karli Petty. OSU added another run in the fourth off of an error by Nelson, but the ‘Cats still took a 3-2 lead into the sixth inning.
There, things fell apart for Williams and her team. Back-to-back homers for Oklahoma State put the opponents up 4-3, and Northwestern failed to respond in the top of the seventh, cementing its only loss of the weekend.
For their efforts, the Wildcats rose in every national ranking. The NFCA/USA Today poll, which Inside NU uses in its description of teams, awarded Northwestern just a mild hop from the first spot out of the Top 25 to No. 18, four spots back of the Clemson team it battered so badly on Saturday. D1Softball.com, which had NU slotted as its No. 23 team in the nation heading into the weekend, bumped the ‘Cats to No. 10 after its successful slate down south.
The team will return to warmer climates this weekend, where they will participate in the Mary Nutter Classic in Palm Desert, Calif. There, they’ll face No. 9 Oregon, San Diego State, No. 5 Washington and California State Fullerton before closing things out on Sunday with a rematch against the Red Raiders.