As Northwestern softball star Rachel Lewis stepped into the batter’s box on April 15, she had the chance to etch her name into the record books.
The Wildcats led Purdue 13-0 in the fourth inning, yet another dominating performance in what would be Northwestern’s first Big Ten Championship season since 2008. The game was all but decided, but the stands were still packed with fans hoping to witness the coronation of a new home run queen.
Lewis’ career had come a long way, from her family’s influence beginning her love for softball, to setting records at her high school in Liberty Township, Ohio, to becoming one of the all-time greats at Northwestern. She succeeded at every level, making her name known across the Midwest while winning five national championships in fastpitch travel softball.
She stared into the eyes of her opponent 43 feet away from her. As the pitcher wound back her arm, Lewis lifted her left leg forward for a split second, then dug her foot hard into the dirt as the ball flew toward her.
After five years in Evanston and 57 home runs, Lewis was ready to make history.
She turned on the pitch and sprinted to first, only slowing once she neared second base when the ball had gone far over the fence. She had crushed it so hard that it bounced off of nearby Welsh-Ryan Arena, per usual.
Her teammates swarmed her as she crossed home plate. Lewis later reflected on the chance to have her name in the record books alongside many Northwestern legends that came before her.
“It was just an honor,” Lewis said. “It was cool to even have my name in the sentence of Tammy [Williams], [Adrienne] Monka and Garland Cooper. To feel the love from everyone, from my family, from all the fans in the stadium, that moment is something I’ll never forget.”
Lewis’ rise to stardom has always seemed like destiny. She was born in Lake Orion, Mich., just 100 miles south of where her mother, Lisa Rogers, played collegiate softball at Northwood University. Athleticism has always been in Lewis’ blood.
“She was very athletic from the moment she could walk,” Lisa said. “She would play every sport she possibly could if there were more time in the day.”
Lewis first joined tee-ball at age five, but softball was far from her central focus. She enjoyed basketball, soccer, flag football, running, riding her RipStik and skateboard, boxing, doing gymnastics, and she even owned a lacrosse stick during her childhood. Her mother described Lewis as a kid who could never sit still.
At age 8, Lewis moved to Liberty Township, a suburb of Cincinnati. It was there that Lisa first decided to take Lewis to tryouts for the local travel softball teams. She said it was always fun to watch her daughter, who was one of the smallest on the team because she played in an older age group.
A year later, Lewis was introduced to Les Rogers, who not only became her stepfather, but also one of the most instrumental pieces to her softball success.
Les coached Lewis on his travel softball team until she was 13. He said she was always the fastest kid, no matter who she played for, but she didn’t know how to use that speed.
He recalled timing 9-year-old Lewis in practice to see how quickly she could reach first base and found she would only run about half as fast during a game. When he approached her about why she wasn’t running her hardest, Lewis simply stated that she didn’t have anybody to compete against, saying she was trying to beat the stopwatch in practice.
“I said, ‘Rach, you are competing. You’re competing with the ball that’s going to first base,’ and her eyes lit up,” Les said. “From then on, she was fast no matter what.”
In addition to showing Lewis how to harness her natural speed, Les also taught his stepdaughter the very swing that broke Northwestern’s career home run record. Using the same lessons taught to three-time Olympic medalist Crystl Bustos, who Les regarded as the “Barry Bonds of women’s fastpitch softball,” Lewis finally found her stroke at the plate.
“She couldn’t hit, and then finally we found it one night in the garage,” Les said about the form finally ‘clicking’ for Lewis. “I called Lisa, I said I found it, I found it, I found it.”
Lewis didn’t just become a stronger player; she became smarter as well. As she grew older, Lisa taught Lewis how to learn the pitches she was being thrown. This greater understanding of the game, Les said, is what allows Lewis to be comfortable on counts where the batter is at a disadvantage.
At 13, Lewis caught the eyes of Northwestern coaches Kate and Caryl Drohan. Northwestern sent Assistant Coach (now UAB Associate Head Coach) Courtnay Foster to watch Lewis play at the Amateur Softball Association Nationals tournament.
In her first at-bat, Lewis sent the pitch over the back fence.
It was her first career home run. On her next time up to swing, Lewis nearly did it again. The ball came within eight inches of the back wall, and Foster got up to leave. She had seen all she needed to see.
Before Thanksgiving of her freshman year of high school, the offer came in from Northwestern. The Drohan sisters had targeted Lewis as a “blue-chip” prospect, and for Lewis, whose top choice was Northwestern all along, it was a perfect match.
When Steve Castner first watched Lewis play, he knew she was going to be a star.
Castner coached softball in Liberty Township for 30 years, managing Lakota High School from 1990 to 1997. When the school was split into Lakota West and East in 1998, Castner took over the reins of the latter, where he stayed until 2019.
Castner said that Lewis was “without a doubt one of the best” he had ever seen.
“I’ve coached thirty years, but she is probably the standard for me,” Castner said. “Every good player I have had, she’s the person I compared them to. She could steal, she could play defense, she could play offense, she could get home runs, she could hit singles. She led by example.”
Castner first met Lewis when she was 14; she was on his daughter’s junior high team, but he didn’t truly “know” her until she joined Lakota East as a freshman. Shortly after her arrival, Castner knew that Northwestern was taking a good look at Lewis and she was likely going DI in the sport. Before she gained enough experience, he said, she was committed to the Wildcats.
Lewis’ talents in all facets of the game put Lakota East in the spotlight; the Thunderhawks won 99 games in her four years at the school, while losing just 19 in that span. Castner’s wife, Delina, who coached under her husband, said that everybody who came to see the games loved to watch Lewis — the stands were always packed. When the bleachers filled up, fans would put chairs next to the field to watch.
Castner recalled one of his most notable memories of Lewis where she excelled on both the offensive and defensive sides of the game. Against a rival squad, Lewis hit for the cycle, highlighting her abilities as both a speedy athlete as well as a slugger. In the same game, Lewis sprinted toward foul territory from her position at shortstop, diving onto her stomach to catch a ball for an out. Games like those, Castner said, showcased the special kind of player she is.
The Castners have continued to follow Lewis throughout her college career, traveling to Evanston, North Carolina and New Jersey, among other locations, to watch her play. They are constantly amazed, not just by the player she is on the field, but the person off the field as well, with Delina saying, “she’s still that same humble lady we knew when she became a freshman.”
“I think the sky’s the limit because whatever she puts her mind to, she works hard to get that accomplished,” Steve said. “I wish I had someone like her every year.”
The Wildcats had a record of just 24-29 in 2017 when Lewis joined Northwestern, and she left an immediate mark on the program. Despite being one of the youngest players on the team, Lewis led the Wildcats in runs, homers, RBIs, total bases and OPS, among many other statistics her freshman year. Northwestern went 38-19 in 2018, the team’s best record since 2009.
Lewis’ first season in purple and white was outstanding to say the least – she was named a second-team All-American by the NFCA and was well on her way to several top ten spots in the Wildcats’ record book – but that was just the start to her illustrious career.
Over her five years on campus, Lewis has rewritten those record books, leading the ‘Cats to the NCAA Tournament in all four of her complete seasons.
“Rachel Lewis is the strongest athlete we’ve ever coached here,” said Northwestern head coach Kate Drohan. “She comes to us with a tremendous amount of strength, speed and explosiveness, and she’s got a very competitive nature about her.”
Lewis’ mindset has always been recognized by her coaches, but especially by her teammates. Senior Maeve Nelson has been Lewis’ batting partner since 2019 and has watched firsthand how her teammate has developed her game from a mental standpoint.
“The difference between now and my freshman year has just been her patience and her level-headedness,” Nelson said. “She would get really frustrated with herself when we were younger and a little less experienced. Now, she’s just really come full circle and she’s able to take a step back from the big picture and focus more on the little things. The biggest thing is her ability to take the little wins.”
Lewis’ self-motivation may be her strongest asset. While she pushes herself, she uplifts her teammates by leading by example, and Drohan believes this determination is from a feeling of “unfinished business.”
“For me on a personal level, it’s been really fun to coach Rachel because her motor just goes,” Drohan said. “She’s so explosive on the bases. She’s so explosive at the plate. She’s really allowed us within our program to do a lot of different things [because of] her versatility and her steadiness.”
Drohan also noted that this versatility in Lewis’ game and the “freeness” that she plays with is helping her teammates to succeed as well. Lewis herself finds great pride in affecting others with her game and said this impact is her main motivation above all.
“I think seeing what it means to other people when I’m successful and how it can level up other people on the team really pushes me to be great,” Lewis said. “It’s not just me, it’s all the other people that are on board with that success. It [pushes] me because I know it’ll bring other people to that point too.”
While her five-year career has been incredible overall, her outstanding final season has put the cherry on top.
Lewis’ 21 home runs this year lead the Big Ten, and she enters the NCAA Super Regionals just two long balls shy of tying Cooper’s single-season program record. She also sits atop the conference with 64 runs, 58 RBIs, and absurd advanced stats of 1.360 OPS and a .855 slugging percentage.
Lewis’ “super senior” explosion could be attributed to several factors, but most people, including herself, would credit it to the work she has put in during her time in Evanston.
“I like to consider myself consistent, and I think it’s just been all the work I’ve done over the years and stayed consistent with,” Lewis said. “This year, I really tried to not overthink things and just play my game and be myself.”
On May 4, Lewis was drafted by Athletes Unlimited, a professional softball league that she will play for this summer. But for now, she is dialed in on her current team and its pursuit of a national championship.
“I’ve just focused on our team and playing with my teammates around me,” Lewis said. “We don’t care who has the other jerseys on, we’re just so focused on each other.”
Northwestern now heads to Tempe, Ariz., to take on the Arizona State Sun Devils in the NCAA Super Regional. If the Wildcats succeed in winning the best-of-three series, they will advance to their first Women’s College World Series since 2007.
Lewis said the ‘Cats believe in themselves — that they are the best and can beat anyone.
“We’ve dreamt about this for the entire time we’ve been here,” Lewis said. “We’ve really got to dig in and work hard. We know nothing’s going to come easy for us.”