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Softball: B1G things are on the horizon for the ‘Cats

Northwestern took a broom to the Hawkeyes last weekend on its way to a conference title.

Northwestern Softball extended its win streak to seven with a home sweep of the Iowa Hawkeyes on senior day weekend, putting the ‘Cats in prime position to win the Big Ten.

Northwestern entered the series toe-to-toe with Nebraska at the top of the conference and rode the hot bats of Hannah Cady, Rachel Lewis and Sam Hackenbracht of Ohio State, who helped the ‘Cats to an eventual three-game lead in the B1G. The junior hit 5-for-10 with four RBIs as the Buckeyes took two of three against Nebraska, dropping the Huskers to 15-4 in conference play with Northwestern towering high above them at 18-2.

Back in the central timezone, Northwestern’s series began with a pitching battle between Danielle Williams and Iowa sophomore Denali Loecker. A double threat, Loecker got the best of Williams initially from the batter’s box, taking Northwestern’s ace deep in the first inning and earning the Hawkeyes a one-run lead.

Northwestern wouldn’t trail for long, as graduate student Lewis answered back with a jack of her own, a two-run shot to put the ‘Cats up 2-1. Senior Maeve Nelson added to the fun, crushing a ball deep into center field, putting the Wildcats on top 3-1 at the end of the first. Both pitchers settled in eventually, with Northwestern recording just one more run in that time frame thanks to first-year Ayana Lindsey, who ran home on a wild pitch in the fourth.

Sloppy play from the Cats in the top of the fifth allowed the Hawkeyes to catch up, bringing the score to an even 4-4. Thankfully, it was then that the bottom of Northwestern’s lineup exploded. Sophomore Cady, who finished the day 2-2 with an RBI, run, and two walks, singled junior Angela Zedak home, and then was brought home herself thanks to first-year Grace Nieto two batters later. Senior Lauren Dvorak came in the next half inning to relieve Williams, and she got the job done, sending the ‘Cats into Saturday’s matchup with a 9-5 victory.

Saturday was the Sydney Supple show on the mound. She started the game off with two strikeouts in the first inning, including a nasty whiff by Loecker. Three doubles, by seniors Skyler Shellmeyer, Nikki Cuchran and Lewis, had the Cats up 2-0 after the first. Supple struggled at times, walking batters throughout the game, but what she didn’t do was allow a run. Bolstered by an unearned run and a Cady dinger down the right-field line, Supple pitched the first complete-game shutout of her career. Surrendering four hits and five walks on 105 pitches, she blanked the Hawkeyes, and four runs from her offense earned the ‘Cats the win.

Sunday was senior day at The J, beginning with a pregame ceremony honoring the team’s nine seniors. It was bittersweet, with Northwestern’s best offensive player Lewis truly experiencing her last home regular-season game. That being said, the rest of NU’s seniors do have an extra COVID year of eligibility and could choose to remain in Evanston for another go next season.

As far as the action goes, Williams did what Williams does. She needed just 71 pitches to get through five innings, walking two, allowing three hits, and fanning seven in five scoreless innings. On the offensive side, senior Jordan Rudd and Cuchran each pitched in with two-RBI singles.

But, the big boom came from Northwestern’s emerging star, Cady. In the bottom of the third, the lefty took Iowa’s Breanna Vazquez deep over the center-field fence on the first pitch of her at-bat, bringing Zedak, Lindsey, and Nelson home with her for a grand slam. Senior Lauren Caldrone capped the day’s scoring in the fourth, and Northwestern secured the sweep with a 9-0 rule-run victory on senior day.

The ‘Cats found themselves in the top ten of the polls across the board after the sweep once again, clocking in at No. 8 in the NFCA/USA Today and ESPN polls and No. 7 in D1Softball.com and Softball America’s rankings. Barring collapses in Minneapolis and East Lansing, Northwestern is in line to host an NCAA Regional in Evanston the weekend of May 20, which would be the second time the program has done so in Williams’ career and the fifth time in Kate Drohan’s 21-year tenure.

Northwestern now looks to lock up the Big Ten this weekend in Minneapolis against the Gophers, with first pitch set for 4:00 p.m. CST on ESPN2.