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Softball: No. 8 Northwestern sweeps Indiana to reclaim conference lead, obliterates UIC

The ‘Cats are back atop the B1G.

Coming off their worst game of the season — a run-rule loss to rival Illinois to cap a 1-1 midweek doubleheader — the Northwestern Wildcats bounced back all the way to the top of the Big Ten.

With a three-game road sweep of the Indiana Hoosiers, NU erased the 1.5 game gap between itself and the former leaders, the Nebraska Cornhuskers, who picked up their first two losses of conference play on the road against Wisconsin. The ‘Cats proceeded to ride their wave of momentum from the weekend into a Tuesday afternoon thumping of the UIC Flames, leaving their season-long record at an astounding 35-7. Danielle Williams, as per usual, led the way in the circle, earning wins in all three of the Wildcats’ contests in Bloomington, while sophomore Hannah Cady continued her hot streak at the plate, smashing three homers against the Hoosiers and batting in six runs.

The Wildcats controlled the series opener against IU from start to finish, jumping out to a 2-0 lead in the top of the first on the back of a throwing error from Hoosiers’ shortstop Brooke Benson and an RBI single from Nikki Cuchran. The ‘Cats widened their advantage in the top of the second when Cady connected for her first homer of the series, a solo shot that left the score at 3-0. In the bottom of the inning, the hosts struck back with a solo homer of their own from catcher Lindsey Warick to cut the NU lead to 3-1.

Warick’s run, however, would be the only one her team scored on Friday, as Williams, NU’s starter in the circle, went the distance while allowing only four hits and striking out 10 Hoosiers. A five-run top of the fifth for the ‘Cats, which featured Cady’s second solo homer of the game, padded their lead, and they wound up with an 8-1 victory when all was said and done.

Saturday’s game featured another exhilarating comeback victory for NU, in a season full of them. After a scoreless first inning for both sides, the Wildcats once again struck first, plating three runs — one on another error by Benson and two off of a double from Sydney Supple — in the top of the second. In the bottom of the inning, though, things took a turn for the worst as Northwestern starter Lauren Dvorak allowed four earned runs before being pulled just one out into the frame. As the NU offense sat dormant for two innings, the Hoosiers plated an additional three runs off of Supple, who relieved Dvorak during the second, extending their lead to 7-3.

In the top of the fifth, the ‘Cats began to fire back. A three-run homer from Cuchran made it a one-run ballgame. Supple settled in for a scoreless bottom of the inning, and a solo homer from first-year Grace Nieto tied things up at seven in the top of the sixth. Nieto’s score prompted Kate Drohan to bring in her ace, Williams, for the duration of the contest.

Both teams failed to score in the seventh, sending the game to extra innings. After another scoreless frame from both sides in the eighth, the Wildcats exploded for a six-run ninth inning, with Cady driving in the first two runs on a double that gave her team the lead and Supple, Nieto and star graduate student Rachel Lewis all bringing in more runs afterwards. A single run from IU in the bottom of the inning was not nearly enough to even things up, and NU emerged with a 13-8 win.

In the series finale, Williams was called on by Drohan yet again, starting once more and going the distance with a final stat line of one earned run against (two unearned), five hits against and nine strikeouts. The ‘Cats put up 11 runs, with highlights including a successful steal of home by speedy first-year Ayanna Lindsey, Lewis’ conference-leading 19th homer of the season, Cady’s third homer of the weekend and a two-RBI triple for Cuchran.

As impressive as NU’s 11 runs in their series finale against IU were, the Wildcats nearly matched that total in the first inning of their Tuesday afternoon clash with UIC, when they put up 10 runs off of RBI hits from, Lewis, catcher Jordyn Rudd, Cuchran, Supple and Nieto and Lindsey’s first career home run, a grand slam. By the end of the second, the lead grew to 16-0 and by the end of the fifth, NU had cemented a 21-2 win over their crosstown foe.

For the first time this season, the ‘Cats’ ranking across college softball’s four main polls is now unified, coming in at No. 8 in each of the NFCA/USA Today, D1Softball.com, Softball America and ESPN.com/USA Softball rankings. They’ll face Iowa in their last home series of the regular season this weekend, with first pitch on the series opener set for 4 p.m. CT on Friday.