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Sophomore slugger Hannah Cady is coming into her own

The future of Kate Drohan’s lineup looks bright.

On March 4, 15 games into Northwestern softball’s season, sophomore Hannah Cady boasted a batting average of .093 and struck out 11 times over 43 at-bats. She recorded just four hits, six RBIs and no walks. The sophomore from Clarkston, Mich., was struggling. With the depth and flexibility of NU’s dugout this season, there were a million different ways that the Drohan sisters could have taken Cady out of the lineup. But they didn’t.

If there’s one thing Northwestern fans know about the Drohans, it’s that they know what they’re doing. In this instance, they knew Cady was on the cusp of something great.

After her sluggish 15-game start, she finally had a streak, raising her average to .200 with a 7-for-12 stretch in the final four games of the Southern Illinois invitational. It was in the final game of that invitation that Cady took her first walk. Since then, her average has steadily increased, climbing weekend after weekend. As amazing as her emergence has been, it has been equally strange.

What makes Cady’s burst so atypical is that for the most part, college softball players usually don’t make jumps like this. Yes, softball is like other sports where players better their play as they age, whether it be through adding more muscle, maturing mentally, or developing a better feel for the game. As far as batting statistics go, though, Northwestern’s veterans have remained relatively consistent throughout their careers. For example, senior Maeve Nelson’s statistics across her four seasons as a Wildcat don’t vary much, despite a massive jump in OBP this year:

Maeve Nelson

Year Average OBP
Year Average OBP
2019 0.262 0.395
2020 0.262 0.4
2021 0.268 0.342
2022 0.26 0.423

Similarly, senior catcher Jordyn Rudd’s career has looked like this:

Jordyn Rudd

Year Average OBP
Year Average OBP
2019 0.328 0.422
2020 0.257 0.293
2021 0.329 0.392
2022 0.364 0.453

Other than Rudd’s 2020 season, which was shortened by the pandemic, there’s not a ton of variance, and Nelson has been incredibly consistent as well. While these are just two examples, the Wildcat seniors exemplify how difficult it really is to make a significant jump in batting average or OBP over time, even with offseason work and improvement. Usually, players are who they are, and that’s who they tend to be for the majority of their careers.

When players do improve, they usually do it over a long period of time, such as Avery Steiner of Illinois:

Avery Steiner

Year Average OBP
Year Average OBP
2019 0.276 0.330
2020 0.338 0.365
2021 0.329 0.35
2022 0.385 0.409

The first 22 games of the 2020 season showed signs of improvement for Steiner, but it wasn’t a major shock considering the growth she showed at the end of her freshman year. She then consistently developed over the 2021 season, progressively turning into the on-base machine that she is today. The fact of the matter is that when players make considerable improvements, it is usually a process that occurs over time. After all, it’s hard to flip a switch and almost instantaneously be better.

Therein lies the magic of Cady’s season so far. Her last 33 games have been extraordinary, and she has certainly gotten better as the season has gone on. But, to an extent, it sort of just happened out of nowhere. Through the first 42 games of her career, Cady was 13-for-87 at the plate with an average of .149. In the games since, she is 37-for-98, with an average of .378 over that span. She’s also smashed eight homers this season, including a key score against No. 23 Michigan and two runs in NU’s comeback victory against Indiana.

As astounding as this quick jump has been, it’s not unprecedented for the Drohans’ recruits. Senior Skyler Shellmeyer was a highly touted recruit coming into the program, but through her first two seasons as a Wildcat she had an average of .229 with 24 walks and 47 strikeouts through 83 games. And then it clicked. In 2021 she broke out with an average of .360 and has continued her success this season, hitting 337. Cady’s average hasn’t jumped as high as Shellmeyer’s (yet), but it’s exploded in similar fashion.

Cady’s sample size is too small to make any bold proclamations on what kind of player she is, isn’t, and will be. But looking forward, Northwestern will lose its best offensive player in graduate student Rachel Lewis this year, followed by four other seniors in the batting lineup and star pitcher Danielle Williams, all of whom still have the option to play a fifth and final season thanks to their extra COVID year.

The sophomore has the opportunity to be the key in making the upcoming turnover successful. After playing in an NCAA Regional last season, Cady will use her momentum to help the ‘Cats pursue a Women’s College World Series again this year before she is called upon to step up as a leader in the dugout and a keystone in the lineup. With the fire that she’s shown in her energy as well as her bat, No. 16 might just be that player, and the postseason is the perfect stage for her to show it.