Northwestern Softball is just one win away from clinching the Big Ten title, a feat they haven’t achieved since 2008. The ‘Cats’ success can be greatly attributed to its veteran squad, headed by star southpaw Danielle Williams. The senior pitcher is having her best season yet, leading the Big Ten with a 1.28 ERA — good for 13th in the country.
Williams’ all-star potential has been here all along but her recent greatness was overshadowed by COVID’s unfortunate impact on the 2020 and 2021 seasons. The pitcher has been playing off the charts since her first season in Evanston in 2019. As a first-year, Williams went 14-2 in Big Ten play with a 1.53 ERA, all while holding Big Ten opponents to a .152 combined batting average. Following the 2019 season, she was named both Big Ten Freshman of the Year and National Freshman of the Year, an honor never awarded to a Big Ten player before.
Unfortunately, fans weren’t able to watch Williams fully blossom throughout the shortened 2020 season. She made 15 appearances in the circle pre-COVID, and she finished 4-6, recording a season ERA of 3.57. And, in contrast to her strictly mound-based play today, she massively contributed to the team’s offensive power, leading the ‘Cats with a .286 batting average and finishing second on the squad with a .531 slugging percentage. Despite not putting up the same stats she did in 2019, Williams was still recognized for her talents on the USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year Top 50 Watch List.
She returned to glory in 2021, finishing the year with a 2.21 ERA and an overall record of 17-7, holding opponents' batting average to .203. Williams also led the ‘Cats in ERA, wins (7) and strikeouts (191), not to mention her perfect game against Iowa was the first seven-inning perfect game for Northwestern since 1984. She concluded the season with high honors, named First-team All Big-Ten and USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year Top 50 Watch List for a second-straight season.
If her resume wasn’t impressive enough already, Williams has been treating the 2022 season as a way to make up for lost time. She started her fourth year with a bang — in the season opener against UConn, Williams struck out eight and gave up just two hits to the current Big East frontrunners, achieving this in a mere five innings. She also contributed to the ‘Cats’ massive performance against Pac-12 and ACC opponents earning dubs against No. 3 UCLA, No. 15 Clemson, No. 9 Oregon and No. 5 Washington, striking out six, eleven, five and eight respectively.
Her dominance has only persisted in Big Ten play. Williams is currently 13-1 in conference contests, dropping her only game to No. 23 Michigan. Tallying 129 strikeouts, Williams has held Big Ten opponents to a .171 batting average— the lowest of all Big-Ten pitchers — and she has posted an ERA of 1.63 in conference play. She struck out a career-high 17 batters in a shutout against Michigan State and proceeded to record a save later that day in the doubleheader.
Overall, Williams has totaled 260 strikeouts this season with an ERA of 1.28, leading the Big Ten in both categories. She has protected the plate with 10 double-digit strikeout games this season while only allowing 11 home runs, three of which came from an early non-conference loss against No. 7 Oklahoma State.
Williams is a star and this has been her season to shine, especially with the hard-hitting Wildcat offense behind her. She has earned NFCA National Pitcher of the Week once and Big-Ten Pitcher of the Week four times this season, in addition to recently being named a finalist for USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year. The list consists of phenomenal pitching company, Oklahoma’s Jordy Bahl and Southern Florida’s Georgina Corrick.
Williams’ senior season, however, is far from being over. The ‘Cats are on the way to closing out the regular season in pursuit of a Big Ten Tournament title before beginning their journey to the College World Series. Williams’ success so far against non-conference competitors is certainly promising, however, it will be interesting to see how the Wildcats fare against teams who have had to consistently face off against the best pitchers in the country.
While the Wildcats have been shining at the top of the Big Ten, it is no secret that the league is not as competitive as its peers. In the Pac-12, teams have to regularly face tough tosses from UCLA’s Megan Faraimo, Washington’s Gabby Plain, and Oregon’s Brooke Yanez. In addition, the SEC boasts stars Montana Fouts of Alabama, Mary Haff of Arkansas and Ashley Rogers of Tennessee, while the ACC and Big 12, too, are overall tougher than the Big Ten.
This isn’t to say the ‘Cats can’t go far in the tournament. It’s to say that Williams and company will need to tap into that early non-conference magic once they take care of business in the B1G. With heavy-hitters Rachel Lewis, Jordyn Rudd and Maeve Nelson to lead the way on offense, it will be up to Northwestern’s pitching ace to spearhead the effort from the mound.