There’s only one true way to describe Northwestern’s softball team in 2022, and that’s one of destiny.
The Wildcats had it all: record-breaking individual seasons, conference leaders, triple crowns, a Big Ten regular-season championship, walk-offs, shutouts, All-Americans and plenty of dugout dancing.
Built on a strong senior class, Northwestern went on to have one of the best seasons in program history. The ‘Cats won the Big Ten for the sixth time with a 39-9 regular-season record, then later advanced to the Women’s College World Series for the first time since 2007. The WCWS berth was Northwestern’s sixth in school history and the third under Kate and Caryl Drohan.
The Wildcats opened the 2022 season unranked with 23 straight road games ahead of them, but despite the lack of a Sharon J. Drysdale Field advantage, Northwestern came out of the gates hot. The ‘Cats went 19-4 during the first five weeks of the season and proved they were among the nation’s top teams with six ranked victories.
The crown jewel of these wins came against No. 3 UCLA in Clearwater, Fla. Heading into extra innings tied at two, the Bruins scored a pair of runs to pull ahead. With two outs in the bottom of the eighth, it looked bleak that the Wildcats could pull out a victory. Jordyn Rudd prolonged the game with an RBI single to cut the deficit to one and then came the defining moment of Northwestern’s early season. In the next at-bat, Maeve Nelson sent the pitch deep over the center-field wall to walk off the No. 3 team in the nation with a final score of 6-4.
The win showed the Wildcats could compete with any team, no matter the ranking in front. The following week, Northwestern took down No. 9 Oregon after a laser beam from Angela Zedak cut down the tying runner at home, then defeated No. 5 Washington for its third top-ten win. This sequence of late February success set the tone for the season and moved the ‘Cats to No. 17 in the nation with a 10-4 record.
Then came March. Northwestern hit its stride, winning 14 straight games before dropping its lone home loss to Michigan in a doubleheader. The ‘Cats ran through their conference slate over the next two months, claiming their first Big Ten regular-season title since 2008 en route to the ninth seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Despite some late-season struggles against Minnesota and an early exit in the Big Ten Tournament, Northwestern was able to turn up the heat when it mattered the most. The nine-seeded ‘Cats dominated the Evanston Regional, taking down Oakland and McNeese (twice) by a combined score of 36-7. Danielle Williams threw 251 pitches during the weekend, setting a precedent that would last throughout the tourney.
The ‘Cats then traveled to Tempe, Ariz., to battle Arizona State in the NCAA Super Regional, defeating the Sun Devils in the most thrilling series they had played all year. Northwestern came back from down at least three runs in every game, and clutch performances from all parts of the lineup fueled the Wildcats to victory.
Trailing by one in the seventh inning in Game One, sophomore Hannah Cady launched a shot over the centerfield wall to even the score and send it to extras. Williams continued her incredible 179-pitch night, keeping the ‘Cats in it for 11 innings before an Angela Zedak groundout brought in the winning run.
After dropping Game Two and falling behind 5-0 in Game Three, the odds of advancing looked bleak. However, the Cardiac ‘Cats were not done yet. Northwestern battled back with four runs in the fourth, then Cady once again hit the solo tying homer to even the score. The Wildcats padded a few runs on for security before finally beating the Sun Devils 8-6 to clinch their first trip to the Women’s College World Series since 2007.
Unfortunately, the ‘Cats’ trip to Oklahoma City was short-lived, as the bats fell cold in losses to No. 1 Oklahoma and No. 5 UCLA. As the 13-2 score indicates, the matchup with the eventual champion Sooners was not very close, but Northwestern certainly had its chances versus the Bruins, who it had already beaten earlier in the year.
The defining moment in the elimination game between the Wildcats and Bruins came in the bottom of the fifth inning, trailing 2-0. Northwestern’s hitters had not been able to get anything going against UCLA pitcher Megan Faraimo, earning just one hit through four, but the ‘Cats got a spark behind a Zedak single and Cady walk. Grace Nieto doubled to score Zedak, and Skyler Shellmyer walked to load the bases with Rachel Lewis up to bat with two outs.
After three straight balls and runners positioned on every bag, it appeared imminent that the ‘Cats would at least tie the game. Instead, three straight pitches came right down the middle and Lewis struck out looking, leaving three Wildcats stranded. The very next at-bat in the top of the sixth, Faraimo homered to deliver a finishing gut punch to Northwestern, which ultimately lost 6-1.
Regardless of how the year ended, the 2022 season was one to remember. Between Lewis’ program home run record, Williams’ arm coming close to falling off with the number of postseason pitches she threw, Nelson’s walk-off against UCLA, Zedak’s rocket throw to beat Oregon, and countless chest bumps at home plate, the legacy of this team will never be forgotten. Only time will tell if any of the graduating seniors will exercise their COVID year and run it back again, but even if they don’t, their impact on the team will be etched permanently in Wildcat lore.