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‘Cats exude resilience in Super Regional opener against Arizona State

Enduring a trial by fire and 100-degree heat, Northwestern earned its most impressive victory at the perfect time.

@NUSBCats / Twitter

It’s hard to define a back-and-forth playoff contest that went well beyond regulation by a single play. But, sometimes, the comparisons make themselves.

In the fourth inning, with Arizona State holding a 1-0 lead over Northwestern, a ground ball shot toward first baseman Nikki Cuchran with a runner on second base and two outs. She bobbled the ball, bobbled it again, and then grabbed it to narrowly beat out Jazmyn Rollin to the bag.

Just like Cuchran on that inning-ending grounder, the Northwestern Wildcats constantly mustered up just enough momentum on Friday night to eke out a 4-3, 11-inning victory over the Sun Devils and take the first game of their Super Regional in Tempe — even if their mistakes and fatigue made that task seem impossible at times.

In over 100-degree heat, Danielle Williams offered a Herculean 179-pitch effort to earn the victory. She baffled Arizona State’s lineup in the early innings with her devastating changeup, which she relied on en route to nine strikeouts. But adversity arrived in the fourth and fifth innings, when ASU hammered three solo home runs to take a 3-0 lead. With Williams’ pitch count already high, head coach Kate Drohan considered taking out her ace to keep her fresh for the second game.

“It was a conversation that was happening constantly,” Drohan said on deciding whether to pull Williams. “When you’re thinking about a series like this, you don’t want to leave her in too long.”

Just when all hope looked lost, Skyler Shellmyer reached on an infield single in the sixth inning. That set the table for Rachel Lewis’ two-run homer to center field, which cut the deficit to a single run. NU kept rolling, even putting itself in a position to tie the game before pinch runner Ayana Lindsey got doubled-up at second base on a fly ball to end the inning.

Putting the game within reach allowed Williams to continue pitching through the sixth. And in the top of the seventh, Hannah Cady made Drohan’s decision pay off by crushing a game-tying solo home run. For the sophomore — who only appeared in one of Northwestern’s three NCAA Regional games last year — the dramatic moment was the biggest of her career.

“I was trying to get something going for us,” Cady said about the home run. “It was very emotional hitting that, but just getting it done and putting our team in a position to win was what mattered.”

Northwestern kept finding itself in decisive positions, yet found itself enough unlucky (or unfortunate, depending on your read) situations to keep game deadlocked at three. However, Williams responded by escaping multiple late-inning jams to keep the ‘Cats in contention.

In the seventh and eighth innings, NU committed two more baserunning errors with runners in scoring position. Williams followed them up by twice stranding runners on third — two of the 11 Sun Devils left on base in total.

The Wildcats haven’t committed many mistakes in any phase of the game this year — though it’s typically resulted in losses when they have. That’s why postseason concerns arose when the team suffered through an inconsistent stretch in early May. But their ability to stay the course and win games in a variety of ways throughout the year proved crucial as they kept teetering on the edge of defeat.

That resolve culminated in Arizona State’s own mistake in the 11th, when Maeve Nelson scampered home on a groundout to score the winning, unearned run. With Williams’s pitch count ballooning to a career-high and Drohan’s squad unable to break the game open, Northwestern manufactured something out of nothing when doing so was a must. Not only did the ace pass the trial by fire, the offense did, too.

For a team that has found recent success but hasn’t yet been able to string together a championship run, that resilience will turn a lot of heads. With juggernaut Oklahoma likely on deck if the ‘Cats can win one of the next two, NU’s resolve will only become more and more of a requisite from this point forward.

Williams, who seems likely to at least be available for NU on Saturday night after her arduous Friday showing, seems ready to lead the way in that regard. And her coach is already impressed.

“I think Danielle put on a really, really gutsy performance,” Drohan said. “What a ballgame, Arizona State’s tough and it’s gonna be a battle [in Game Two].”