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Where No. 7 Northwestern softball stands in the national conversation

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The ‘Cats are in the thick of the title hunt.

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Northwestern softball is off to one of the best starts in program history. Sitting at 33-7 and ranked seventh in the country according to D1Softball.com, the ‘Cats are in World Series contention.

That’s not an overstatement. Even in 2019, when the team posted a 42-9 regular-season record, its national ranking peaked at 18th. The added recognition this year is partially due to Northwestern’s success against ranked opponents. The Wildcats have gone 8-3 against top 25 teams thus far and 3-1 against top 10 squads. Their thrilling extra-inning win over No. 4 UCLA in February bolsters that resume even more.

With that success, Northwestern appears to be in prime position to host and win a regional in Evanston. The real question is how far the ‘Cats will advance. A College World Series berth is a real possibility, though the firepower at the very top of the NCAA totem pole might stand between NU and a title run.

There’s no question that Northwestern is balanced. Led by Rachel Lewis and Danielle Williams, the offense ranks just outside the top 20 in runs per game while the pitching staff’s 2.43 ERA is the 36th-best national average as of April 22nd. The ability to win games in various ways tends to translate well to postseason play, which bodes well for the Wildcats. The issue is that other top-ranked teams have not only done this but dominated in the process.

The Bruins, who have lost just twice since their February loss against Northwestern, have the second-lowest team ERA in the nation and score the 11th-most runs. Third-ranked Virginia Tech slots in the top 20 for both categories. Ditto for No. 8 Oklahoma State, a team that beat the Wildcats in February. Even No. 9 Duke has an offense tied for second nationally and a sub-two ERA.

It would be remiss to say that these teams are in a different stratosphere. But the fact that they’ve thrived in much tougher conferences than the B1G makes them slightly easier to vet come playoff time. The next-best team in the Big Ten is No. 21 Nebraska, while the ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 each have three teams in the nation’s top 15.

But the Wildcats have displayed consistency and resiliency. In both instances when the team lost twice in a row, it ripped off winning streaks of 13 and seven games. Compare that to tenth-ranked Florida, a team that hasn’t won more than five consecutive games since early March. Getting hot at the right time is invaluable, and Northwestern’s ability to do so could translate to a deep postseason run.

All things considered, the ‘Cats are a serious threat to other teams hoping to make it to the College World Series. Like most of the aforementioned schools — including other contenders such as Alabama, Florida State and Arkansas — Northwestern has dominated its opponents for the most part. But none of these teams are invincible. Top-ranked Oklahoma, though, is the only one that comes close.

Not only are the 42-1 Sooners the championship favorites, they stand head and shoulders above everyone else. En route to the best regular-season start in Division I history, Oklahoma scored two more runs per game than any other team. Three of its players are slugging over .920 – Lewis’s .903 percentage ranks 15th in the NCAA, for context. Its 0.66 team ERA is almost half a run lower than UCLA’s. Hope Trautwein, the rotation’s ace, has given up an absurd one earned run in 63 innings. To put the cherry on top, the Sooners are the defending champions and have not missed the NCAA semifinals since 2015.

So there’s Oklahoma and everyone else. But Northwestern’s track record against elite teams demonstrates it is more than capable of stringing together a postseason run and possibly earning a chance to knock off the title favorites. Best-of-three series are crapshoots, though, so nothing is guaranteed. That’s the magic of a playoff tournament.