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Softball: ‘Cats mercy Purdue thrice but split pair with Illinois

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Still a consensus top 10 crew, the ‘Cats now sit 1.5 games back of first in the conference

John Konstantaras

As the regular season reaches its home stretch, the Northwestern Softball Team is faced with conflicting realities.

On one hand, the ‘Cats are 31-7, looking likely to finish their scheduled slate off with one of the best regular-season records in program history and to host a regional in the NCAA Tournament.

On the other, Kate Drohan’s team is still looking upward in the Big Ten standings, with Nebraska — undefeated in conference play — standing 1.5 games ahead after the ‘Cats mustered a 4-1 week of conference play that featured a sound sweep of Purdue and a midweek road doubleheader split against rival Illinois.

It was another big week for NU’s stars, with ace Danielle Williams recording a 1.13 ERA and 29 strikeouts in three victorious starts, earning her a spot on USA Softball’s National Player of the Year Finalist List. Fifth-year outfielder Rachel Lewis hit .583 and mashed four homers to set a new program career HR record at 60-and-counting and claimed her third Big Ten Player of the Week Award and her first D1Softball National Player of the Week honor.

None of the Wildcats’ three matchups with the Boilermakers were particularly competitive, but one — the series opener — will stand out in the minds of Northwestern fans for years to come for its historic weight. In a 14-2 rout of PU last Friday, which featured 4 shutout innings from Williams and a collective 14 hits from the team, Rachel Lewis crushed two home runs, the first of which tied Tammy Williams’ program-leading mark for 57 career home runs and the latter of which broke her record. Better yet, the previous standard-bearer was in attendance at The J to witness the feat and congratulate Lewis on the accomplishment:

The next day, the ‘Cats routed their foes from West Lafayette again. NU’s Laurens — that is the pitching duo of Boyd and Dvorak — pitched five innings while allowing just a single Boilermaker run. Meanwhile, Lewis hit two homers — again — and Nikki Cuchran and Hannah Cady batted in two runs each to help NU build a 10-1 lead that it turned into a run-rule victory 4.5 innings in.

In the series finale, PU didn’t even bother pitching to Lewis, instead opting to intentionally walk her in all three of her plate appearances. This, however, did not prove to be an effective method in keeping her from scoring, as she still reached home all three times she was intentionally placed aboard. Meanwhile, Maeve Nelson carried a load of offensive production, hitting two homers of her own and driving in eight runs to tie the program record for the most RBIs in a single game. Back in the circle, Danielle Williams had a weaker performance than her earlier series start, allowing two runs in five innings of work. It didn’t matter much, though, as the Wildcats cruised to one more run-rule victory, this time winning by a 10-2 margin.

On Wednesday, the ‘Cats traveled to Champaign to face Illinois in a midweek doubleheader, the first of which Williams started. The senior ace was nothing short of brilliant, striking out a whopping 12 batters while facing just five over the minimum in a complete-game shutout. A sac fly from Cuchran and a two-RBI double off the bat of Cady in the fourth provided more than enough run support for the Wildcats to secure a 3-0 win over the Illini.

However, the second game of the day was arguably NU’s ugliest of the season. With Williams unavailable, the ‘Cats quickly found themselves on the wrong side of a rout for the first time this year after Dvorak allowed seven earned runs in just 1.2 innings of work. To make matters worse, the Northwestern offense didn’t seem to have much of an answer for UIUC starting pitcher Sydney Sickels, who allowed just four hits and no runs in five innings. Put together, the dismal pitching and silent offense led the Wildcats to their first run-rule defeat of the season, as they fell 8-0 in 4.5 innings.

Friday afternoon, the ‘Cats will have an opportunity to reset the momentum when they kick off a road series against 23-14 Indiana. First pitch is set for 5 p.m. CT.