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Softball: ‘Cats come out on top of the B1G despite tough outing in Minnesota

Northwestern faced its most difficult series yet but looks to rebound as the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament.

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Though Northwestern Softball suffered its worst series yet this past weekend, going 1-2 at Minnesota, the ‘Cats’ efforts throughout the season were enough to earn its eighth B1G regular-season title and a host of conference honors.

Tuesday morning, the Big Ten announced Rachel Lewis as Player of the Year — the first Wildcat to do so since previous home run record holder Tammy Williams in 2009. Danielle Williams earned Pitcher of the Year by unanimous decision, and Kate Drohan was named Coach of the Year as well.

Five Wildcats achieved First Team All-Big Ten Honors, including Hannah Cady, Nikki Cuchran and Jordyn Rudd along with unanimous selections in Williams and Lewis. Maeve Nelson and Skyler Shellmeyer earned Second Team honors, and Grace Nieto placed on the All-Freshman Team. Rudd also found herself on the All-Defensive Team, leaving Angela Zedak as the lone Wildcat from the starting lineup without conference recognition (though she’s All-Defensive Team in our hearts).

That being said, the ‘Cats didn't look much like themselves for the first two games of their final regular-season triad.

The series consisted of Northwestern struggling to find a solid ace in the circle, a surprising difficulty given the star it has in Williams. The senior pitcher opened the series as usual but was pulled in just a mere 2.2 innings. It also didn’t help that the ‘Cats’ usual fiery offense fell into a serious slump.

While she managed to finish the first without giving up a run, Williams didn’t return to her natural form in the second inning. She proceeded to hit two batters and allow a single, handing the Gophers their first run on a sacrifice fly. Williams managed to strike out another but the inning didn’t come to end until after a throwing error by Nieto allowed another run.

In addition to the pitching woes, the bats of the ‘Cats failed to get hot. Through three innings, Northwestern only got on base four times, all without a hit. Slugger Lewis was walked twice, Cuchran was walked once and Nieto reached on a fielding error by Minnesota’s second baseman. The ‘Cats weren’t able to score, though, leaving their runners stranded.

Things fell apart for NU in the bottom of the third. After a leadoff single from the Gophers and two more batters hit, bases were loaded once again with only one out. Minnesota’s Sara Kinch took advantage of the opportunity and hit a two-RBI single to center field. She advanced to second on a fielding error by Shellmyer, while another run scored. Senior Lauren Dvorak relieved Williams but it was too late for the ‘Cats to recover. The Gophers scored two more in the fourth and finished it off in the bottom of the fifth with a walk-off to earn the run-rule victory, shutting out NU 8-0.

Despite the brutal series-opener against the Gophers, later that day the ‘Cats were crowned regular season champs after Indiana took down Nebraska to leave NU alone at the top of the standings.

The title was not enough to stop the Gophers though, as they dealt the conference champs another grueling defeat on Saturday.

Supple entered the circle for the ‘Cats, but her start was short-lived. Lauren Espalin hit a leadoff home run for the Gophers, starting the game up 1-0. Supple managed to finish the inning without any other hits but struggled in the second. After she walked two batters, the ‘Cats allowed three runs to score, one on a fielding error by right fielder Lewis and two on base hit singles from Minnesota.

Drohan pulled Supple in just 1.1 innings, replacing her with Williams. While the senior was able to get out of the second unscathed, she struggled to slow down the scorching bats of the Gophers. Williams allowed three runs in the bottom of the third, once again letting Minnesota near the run-rule threshold. With a seven-run deficit, the Wildcats’ bats remained dormant, and the Gophers scored one more off of Williams in the bottom of the fourth to seal the victory at 8-0 yet again.

Northwestern would not allow its regular season to end on a loss though, and the ‘Cats got to it right off the bat in game three, pun intended. They opened scoring with three runs in the top of the first on Sunday thanks to an RBI by Rudd and a monstrous two-run homer off the scoreboard by Nelson. Williams made the start for the ‘Cats in the circle, throwing three scoreless innings before allowing a solo shot in the fourth. This was the only run that the Gophers would score in the game as NU finally emerged victorious, 3-1.

The ‘Cats didn’t look their best this past weekend but they certainly finished on a high note. They tallied more hits in game three than they did in the first two games, including two near-homerun doubles from Nieto and three hits from Nelson, two of which earned the ‘Cats an extra base. And, the losses don’t discount this team’s hard work throughout the season that sent the ‘Cats home with some highly coveted hardware.

Northwestern is now on to the post-season ranked No. 11 in the USA Today/NFCA DI Coaches Poll, No. 10 in NCAA Women’s Softball RPI and No. 9 in ESPN.com/USA Softball’s poll. After clinching the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten tournament, the Wildcats earned a first-round bye and will face the winner of Wisconsin versus Minnesota at 3:30 PM CST on Thursday in East Lansing.

Whether it was the pressure of securing the Big Ten title looming on the shoulders of the Wildcats or just a fluke of a weekend, we can only hope that the ‘Cats got their slump out of the way before the postseason begins and that facing difficulties early on will only prepare them for what is yet to come.