Throughout their elite start to the 2022 season, the Northwestern Wildcats have been propelled to success by the performance of their senior leadership.
Pitcher Danielle Williams has dominated opposing hitters from the circle, while the offensive prowess of stars like Rachel Lewis, Jordyn Rudd, Nikki Cuchran, Maeve Nelson and Skyler Shellmyer has provided the run support necessary to make NU a consensus top 10 team in the nation.
During last weekend’s road trip to Columbus, where the ‘Cats took on Ohio State, it was Rudd who took center stage, batting .857 with homers in each of three contests to earn Big Ten Player of the Week honors and power NU to sweep the Buckeyes. With the three wins, the Wildcats moved to 27-6 overall and 8-1 in conference play.
After sitting out a midweek loss to Notre Dame, Williams took the circle in the series opener on Friday and had, relatively speaking, one of her weaker outings of the 2022 campaign. The California native allowed three runs on two hits across three innings of work before being relieved by fellow senior Lauren Dvorak, who added another three innings of work without letting a run across.
Williams still soundly ended up with her 15th win of the season, though, as NU’s offense came alive to rock Buckeye starter Lexie Handley. The ‘Cats lit up the left-hander from the start, with Lewis and Rudd mashing back-to-back solo jacks in the first, speedy Shellmyer contributing her first career homer in the fourth, and six other runs scoring during Handley’s 4+ inning appearance. A two-run blast from Lewis and an RBI sac-fly from Angela Zedak in the top of the sixth combined to invoke the run rule and solidify a 12-3 win for Kate Drohan’s team.
After Saturday’s scheduled contest was rained out, the teams played a doubleheader on Sunday, the first leg of which proved to be the tightest affair of the weekend. NU starter Lauren Boyd allowed four runs in a 3.1 inning appearance, and the Wildcats scored only one early run on another solo blast from Rudd, leaving the score at 4-1 through three innings of play.
In the top of the fourth, though, the ‘Cats’ bats once again caught aflame. Nelson launched a grand slam to center to give her team a 5-4 advantage, and a two-RBI single from first-year Grace Nieto made it a 7-4 ballgame before the Buckeyes had another chance at the plate. After Dvorak pitched a scoreless inning of relief, the Wildcats piled it on further in the top of the fifth, with Rudd and Cuchran each contributing RBI singles to extend the NU lead to 9-4. While a grand slam off of Dvorak in the bottom of the sixth cut the Northwestern edge to only one run, a perfect closing inning from Williams secured the 9-8 win and the series for the ‘Cats.
Just 30 minutes later, the Wildcats got to work on the sweep, with Williams reclaiming her spot in the circle to start once again. Her final outing of the weekend was yet another masterclass in a season full of them, as she tossed a complete seven-inning game while allowing just one run and striking out seven Buckeye batters. A 3-run homer from Rudd in the top of the first was all the run support Williams needed, but her team further bolstered the lead, adding another four runs throughout the contest to result in a 7-1 series closing win.
At 8-1 in B1G play, the Wildcats are second in the conference, trailing only to undefeated in-conference Nebraska. While the Huskers control their own destiny for the regular season title and are not slated to face the ‘Cats prior to the Big Ten Tournament, they are faced with three consecutive series against Minnesota, Wisconsin and Ohio State, three of the typically tougher programs in the conference.
With NU’s doubleheader against Illinois in Urbana-Champaign scheduled for Wednesday bumped due to inclement weather and re-slotted for April 20, the ‘Cats will now next face Purdue in a three-game set this weekend in Evanston. First pitch is scheduled for 4 PM CT at The J this Friday.