From a cursory glance at the box score, the story of Northwestern’s 8-6 Sunday night triumph over Arizona State apparent to even the most casual fan is one of resilience.
Down 5-0 through three innings of play, the Wildcats' will to win never wavered. A four-run rally in the top of the fourth made that clear, and the innings that followed saw NU keep chipping away at its hosts. Brick-by-brick, run-by-run, the ‘Cats first erased the remaining one-run deficit before accruing a three-run advantage the Sun Devils wouldn’t overcome. It was a gutsy performance fans of both the team and the sport will remember for years to come, to say the very least.
But the truth is, it’s not that simple.
To uncover the full majesty of the win that sent Northwestern to its first Women’s College World Series since 2007, you have to drill into the layers below this team’s surface.
The deep dive begins with the rest of NU’s incredible Super Regional series against Arizona State, a heavyweight bout that went the distance — and then some. Danielle Williams, whose 430-pitch weekend will go down in program and softball lore, served as the figurehead of the ‘Cats’ never-say-die attitude. Even after allowing five runs early on, cameras caught her smiling in the direction of her teammates in the bottom of the third on Sunday night, seemingly unfazed by the adversity she had faced.
When all was said and done, she settled in — much like she had in the latter innings of Friday evening’s 11-frame saga — and delivered three consecutive scoreless innings. In doing so, she allowed the ‘Cats' bats just enough buffer time to balance the score and build a three-run lead of their own, which she protected to close things out in the bottom of the seventh.
It’s still far, far deeper than that.
The series itself, one of comeback wins and dramatic extra-inning contests, reflected many of the hallmark moments of NU’s 2022 season. First, there was the upset of then-No. 3 UCLA — with whom the Wildcats will now share a bracket in Oklahoma City — which, complete with an 8-inning start from Williams and two separate comebacks before a Maeve Nelson walk-off home run, put the nation on NU notice. Then, at the start of April, the ‘Cats came back from 3-0 down in their series opener against defending Big Ten Champion Michigan, battling their way to a gritty 4-3 win in nine innings that set the tone for their conference slate. Three weeks later in Bloomington, they overcame another deficit, this time a 7-3 hole against the Indiana Hoosiers, eventually winning 13-8 in nine innings to pass Nebraska by for first place in the Big Ten standings, a spot they wouldn’t relinquish.
Turn back the clock even more.
This is the same team that, in the wake of a pandemic that canceled most of their highly-anticipated 2020 campaign, grew closer together through what Rachel Lewis described as “mandatory fun” ahead of a COVID-shortened 2021 season in which they started 18-2 and made the NCAA Tournament despite never playing a non-conference opponent.
“All of us made an effort to talk to each other, because we missed each other so much,” said Jordyn Rudd, whose 4-for-5, three-RBI night anchored the ‘Cats offensively on Sunday. “We were used to just being around each other on the bus, in hotels, and it got taken away.”
But even before the pandemic that brought them closer than ever before hit, Sunday night’s events were brewing. Way back in 2019, a core group of NU’s 2022 seniors — Williams, Nelson, Rudd, Skyler Shellmyer and Nikki Cuchran — were first-year starters for Kate Drohan’s Wildcats. It was then that they learned the art of the comeback, winning three consecutive elimination games to climb out of the loser’s bracket and take the Evanston Regional. Those wins brought Northwestern back to the Super Regionals for the first time in 11 seasons. On Sunday night, to the awe of the college softball world, they perfected that art and carried the purple and white banner one round further, ending a 15-year-long WCWS drought.
As momentous of an occasion as this is for the program and for Northwestern Athletics as a whole, this team’s journey hasn’t reached its conclusion quite yet. Despite all of the drought-breaking this group has done, there’s still one thing left in its sights: the team’s first-ever NCAA title.
It won’t come easy. The Wildcats get started around 2:30 p.m. on Thursday with a battle against all-time NCAA home run leader Jocelyn Alo and the defending national champs, top-seeded Oklahoma. Though it’s a double-elimination style bracket, they’ll have to knock off OU — and, in all likelihood, the Bruins, whose 12 national titles lead all programs — at some point to get to the championship final.
The odds aren’t in their favor, but, then again, the odds also didn’t predict that they’d get to this point. At the end of the day, what we’ve learned from this series, this season and the last four years as a whole comes down to one simple sentence:
Never count these Northwestern Wildcats out.