Marathons, apparently, are not exclusively limited to cross country running.
In an 11-inning, heart-pounding opening game of the Super Regional round played Friday night in Tempe, Ariz., 9-seed Northwestern took down 8-seed Arizona State behind a complete-game, 179-pitch performance from its ace, Danielle Williams. The ‘Cats, who trailed 3-0 after five, battled back with a pair of home runs in the sixth and seventh frames to send the game to extras before eventually prevailing 4-3 after four free innings of softball.
Freshman Mac Morgan made the start for the Sun Devils in the circle and instantly showed the Wildcats that they would be in for a fight. Despite allowing a single up the middle from catcher Jordyn Rudd, the ‘Cats had a slow first inning, with Skyler Shellmyer striking out and both Rachel Lewis and Maeve Nelson grounding out.
With Williams — the unanimous Big Ten Pitcher of the Year — in the circle for the ‘Cats, though, NU set the tone early, too, striking out all three ASU batters in the first frame — including Pac-12 Freshman of the Year Cydney Sanders.
The ‘Cats kept it going in the second in another 1-2-3 inning, with Williams striking out one more and first-year Grace Nieto making two easy plays to retire the rest.
After a fairly dormant two-and-a-half innings for both lineups, the Sun Devils put themselves in scoring position in the third with a lead-off double down the left-field line. Following a successful bunt laid down to advance the runner, the Devils had a runner on third with only one out recorded. Williams kept her poise, though, striking out her fifth of the afternoon before third baseman Hannah Cady grabbed a foul ball to get NU out of the inning unscathed.
Things got a little shaky for the ‘Cats in the bottom of the fourth, when the Sun Devils got on the board first. After a long at-bat, Yanni Acuña took Williams long, hitting a massive homer over the heads of Shellmyer and left fielder Angela Zedak. Despite allowing a few base hits in the inning, Williams was able to end the inning with no further damage done.
As the Wildcats’ bats remained dormant for two innings, the Devils cranked up the offensive pressure in the bottom of the fifth. Makenna Harper crushed a homer dead center to start the inning, and Alynah Torres followed it up a couple batters later with another solo shot to put ASU up 3-0.
The ‘Cats didn’t give up easily, though, sensing the urgency to turn the game around. In the top of the sixth, Shellmyer showed her speed on a slap hit to short to start the inning, successfully getting on base and hyping up the ‘Cats in the process. Lewis followed Shellmyer and proved that she really is the home run queen of Northwestern, taking Morgan deep to center for a two-RBI homer that cut the ASU lead to one.
The ‘Cats put two more runners on after the Lewis homer, but were unable to bring in a tying run after pinch runner Ayanna Lindsey was doubled-up on a fly ball. Williams finished off the sixth for the ‘Cats with a beautiful 1-2-3 inning, striking out another to bring her count up to six Ks on the night and keep NU within close range of the Sun Devils. Then, in desperate need of a run to keep the game alive in the top of the seventh, NU found its hero in the form of Hannah Cady, who went opposite field with a game-tying solo home run.
Following Cady’s homer, Supple popped up to short to record Northwestern’s second out of the inning. In the middle of Nieto’s at-bat, she appeared to injure herself and was pulled in place of Lauren Caldrone with two strikes on the count. Caldrone was able to hop right in and took first after she was hit by a pitch. It looked like the ‘Cats might have an opportunity after Shellmyer slapped up the third baseline to get on base. This would have put Lewis up to bat with a runner in scoring position, but the umps determined that Shellmyer was out of the batter’s box and she was called out, concluding the top of the seventh.
While the ‘Cats couldn’t plate a leading run, they still managed to extend the game after Williams stranded the bases loaded in the bottom of the seventh to force extra innings.
At this point, the Sun Devils made their second pitching change of the day, subbing in Allison Royalty to face the two, three, and four batters of the Northwestern lineup. Royalty ended the inning with the help of Harper, who robbed a would-be-home run from Jordyn Rudd. This brought ASU to the plate with another opportunity to end the game. After the game-winning run reached third base, Williams struck out two batters to keep her team alive and the game going.
Royalty got the leadoff batter to start the ninth, and Trisha Ford proceeded to empty her bullpen, bringing in lefty Lindsay Lopez to face the ‘Cats in the ninth. Lopez retired Cady and pinch hitter Kendall Peterson, striking out both to keep the score level. Meanwhile for the ‘Cats, Williams found her way back to the circle and retired the ASU side in order to push things on to a tenth inning of play.
Nieto started off the top of the tenth with a single to left field and was advanced by a bunt laid down by Shellmyer. ASU proceeded to intentionally walk Lewis, the next NU batter at the plate, but Lopez threw a wild pitch on the intentional walk, allowing Nieto to advance to third. Arizona State got out of the inning, though, on a heads-up double play by their third baseman, who fielded a sharply hit grounder from Rudd, tagged Nieto and made the long throw to first to get the out.
Williams once again got out of trouble in the bottom of the tenth, and in the top of the eleventh (yes, eleventh), her team finally gave her the lead she so rightfully deserved. Nelson started the inning off strong, reaching on a single to second base. Cuchran sacrificed herself to advance Nelson. With Nelson advancing on a passed ball, Angela Zedak came up big, grounding out to shortstop and driving in the leading run in the process.
The ‘Cats weren’t able to build in any more cushion before the inning ended, but, luckily for them, no more cushion was needed with Williams still in the circle. After a leadoff single for the Sun Devils, the NU ace retired the next three batters on a ground out, fly out and foul out to end the game and secure a meaningful and memorable Northwestern victory. Williams concluded the game with a total of 179 pitches and nine strikeouts.
The ‘Cats will only have a short break before they compete in Game Two of the Super Regional Saturday night at 10 p.m. CT. A win in either of the next two potential games would send them through to the Women’s College World Series, something they have not accomplished as a program since 2007. Saturday’s game will be televised on ESPN2.