Immediately after the conclusion of her Wildcats’ 2022 season, a teary-eyed Kate Drohan sat before the media.
In the wake of two Women’s College World Series losses, first to top-seeded Oklahoma on Thursday afternoon and then to juggernaut No. 5 UCLA on Friday evening, all Drohan, Northwestern Softball’s head coach of 22 seasons, could express was pride.
Pride in her team, which won the hearts of many winning the conference, Regional and Super Regional titles en route to Oklahoma City.
“This team is one of a kind,” she said. “[They were] so authentic and so vulnerable to the process, and I will remember how grateful I have felt every single day I’ve taken the field with them.”
Pride in her ace, Danielle Williams, who propelled NU to OKC by starting every postseason game the Wildcats played, accruing 884 pitches and five wins when all was said and done.
“Her impact and what she’s able to do on the field is so selfless. That’s so interesting, for a pitcher that has literally carried us to be so humble about it,” Drohan said of the smiley senior from California.
Pride in the program’s alumni who trekked out to the Great Plains in droves to provide a powerful, purple presence at USA Softball Hall of Fame Stadium.
“You have generations of women who stopped everything in their lives to come support these 21 women in uniform and also to see each other and to strengthen the bond they have between them,” Drohan remarked.
Indeed, in the most disappointing of moments, all the coach could do was shower praise on those around her. Even in addressing some of the Wildcats’ miscues against the Bruins that led to their elimination, Drohan was complimentary.
“Our team emptied the tank,” she said, perhaps referring to the three-game, heavyweight Super Regional the ‘Cats played at Arizona State less than a week prior, all while classes were still in session in Evanston. “I mean, they were gassed. And I think they were still ready to play tonight, but they gave every ounce of themselves to the game and to each other.”
Drohan’s appreciative sentiment seems to have seeped into her players, as was reflected by the postgame remarks of the program’s all-time home run leader, Rachel Lewis, who was choked up a bit herself.
“It’s meant everything,” Lewis said of the journey Northwestern took in 2022, upon the season’s conclusion and the simultaneous end of her college career. “We’ve tried to get better and better every year, and I think we’ve been successful with that. Hopefully, they come back next year even stronger.”
Fighting back tears, she managed a few more sentences.
“It’s been an honor to play for Kate and Caryl [Drohan]. And it’s meant everything to play with them,” she said, pointing toward first-year Grace Nieto, also on the podium, as a representative for the rest of her teammates.
Lewis is the only guaranteed departure from NU’s regular starting ten, but more could follow as the offseason unfolds. Williams, along with fellow seniors Skyler Shellmyer, Jordyn Rudd, Maeve Nelson and Nikki Cuchran could all choose to call it a career and leave Northwestern after four years and three complete seasons.
The Big Ten Player of the Year told the media that Shellmyer — a longtime teammate of hers dating back to their travel ball years — recently asked her if she was glad she came back for a fifth year.
“Hell yeah,” she responded.
With Lewis (and potentially others) departing, the onus of locker room leadership will fall into the hands of a variety of players in the years to come. Nieto, on account of her status as the youngest member of NU’s starting lineup, looks likely to be a mentoring figure down the line. While short, the Wildcats’ time on softball’s grandest stage provided the second baseman an opportunity to make a name for herself — one she fully utilized against the Bruins, going 2-for-3 at the plate with a fifth-inning RBI double that brought the ‘Cats (albeit temporarily) within one run of their foes — and a chance to rally behind her older teammates.
“Especially people like Rachel, being able to lean on them and ask them for advice... having them there every pitch, every step of the way,” Nieto said. “That, I think, is the biggest lesson I learned, and I’ll try to do that, just as Rachel did for me, when I’m an upperclassman.”
That’s just the kind of legacy Lewis seems proud to have left behind. Reflecting on her role in a special season at the end of a historic career, she highlighted her aspirations for younger teammates in future seasons.
“I hope they learned how to lead from me. I hope I set a good example for them. I hope they bring confidence to the game in everything they do,” she said. “I think they’re amazing and have so much freaking potential, so they’re only gonna get better from here.”