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Softball: Capped by Williams’ second no-no, ‘Cats sweep two invitationals

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Northwestern is rolling heading into Big Ten play.

After losses to Cal State Fullerton and Texas Tech to close out its February schedule, Northwestern looked like it might lose some of the momentum it had gained from its 10-2 start. But the Wildcats – who are now ranked No. 9 in the country according to D1Softball.com and No. 11 according to the NFCA – did the exact opposite and won nine consecutive games to solidify themselves as national contenders.

The ‘Cats began the month by winning five games in three days at the Coach B Classic in Carbondale, Ill. In an 8-0, six-inning win over Northern Kentucky on March 4, sophomore Lauren Boyd tossed a one-hit complete game. Senior catcher Jordyn Rudd drove home four runs to lead the way offensively. Her three RBI-double in the fifth inning blew the game open.

The next day, Northwestern blanked Murray State in a 7-0 victory. Boyd and senior Lauren Dvorak threw a combined shutout, allowing just four hits. In the fourth inning, senior infielders Maeve Nelson and Nikki Cucrhan crushed back-to-back homers to give NU the lead. The ‘Cats tacked on five more runs in the final two innings to seal the game.

Later that day, Northwestern defeated Southern Illinois 1-0 on the road to post its third straight shutout victory. Senior Danielle Williams threw another complete game shutout to stymie the Salukis. Rudd’s third inning single drove in first-year Grace Nieto to provide the game’s only run.

The ‘Cats swept another doubleheader the next day with wins over Ball State and Northern Kentucky. In the first game, NU put up consecutive five-run frames in the second and third innings to jump out to a 10-0 lead. Nelson, who went 2-for-4 and scored two runs in the contest, kicked off the dominant run with a leadoff homer in the second inning. The Wildcats rode that momentum to defeat Ball State 10-4. Northwestern then tore up the basepaths to take the latter leg of the doubleheader over Northern Kentucky 7-2. Rachel Lewis did it all offensively. The graduate student homered, scored twice, drove in three runs and stole two bases. Senior outfielder Skyler Shellmyer also stole home to help NU score the game’s first seven runs.

After a weekend off between tournaments, the ‘Cats headed to the University of Missouri to participate in the Mizzou Classic. Northwestern kept the ball rolling in its first doubleheader on March 19, beating Ball State and then-No. 18 Missouri. In its 13-5 run-rule win over the Cardinals, NU put up eight runs in the first two innings to take a commanding lead. Rudd, Cuchran and Lewis combined to hit 7-for-11 with two homers and eight RBIs.

The ‘Cats then earned their sixth ranked win of the year with a 9-6 extra-inning victory over the Tigers. Lewis crushed a home run in the first inning to give Northwestern the early lead. Junior Angela Zedak and sophomore Hannah Cady also drove in runs early to give the Wildcats an early 4-1 edge. Missouri answered with four runs to take the lead heading into the seventh inning, but Lewis homered again in dramatic fashion to even the score at five and send the game to extras.

In the bottom of the eight, the Tigers loomed with a runner in scoring position after the ‘Cats failed to score a go-ahead run in the top of the inning. After a grounder got through to left field, Zedak’s arm was heroic yet again this season, gunning down a runner at the plate to keep the game alive.

Then, in the 10th, Cuchran and Zedak each hit RBI singles to spark a four-run inning. Williams – who struck out 18 batters in nine total innings on the day – proceeded to shut the door to earn the save. Heading into March 20, she held a stellar 1.02 ERA.

The ‘Cats closed their weekend out with wins against Ball State and Stanford on Sunday afternoon. In the first game, Cuchran and Zedak again sparked the offensive attack early in a three-run first inning. Cuchran singled in two runs up the middle, then Zedak drove her in with a double. Boyd shut out Ball State for six innings in the 5-2 victory.

The tournament finale for NU proved to be historic, as Williams produced her second no-hitter of her career, striking out 11 in the process against the Cardinal. Cuchran lined another two-run single in the first inning to give Northwestern all the runs it would need in its 3-0 victory.

For her efforts, Williams won the NFCA’s National Pitcher of the Week award for the second time this season and also was awarded conference co-Pitcher of the Week honors from the Big Ten. Her 0.94 ERA places her at third in the B1G despite the fact that she has also tossed the third-most innings in the conference. With NU’s Tuesday home opener against Loyola-Chicago canceled due to inclement weather, the ‘Cats will now kick off its home season and conference schedule this weekend against Michigan State.