It may only be February, but No. 8 Northwestern softball heated up down in Clearwater, Florida. After reaching the WCWS in 2022, the ‘Cats began their journey back to Oklahoma City in the NFCA Leadoff classic.
NU finished the weekend 2-2, with a mixed bag of performances from the pitching staff. Here are the big takeaways from the weekend. The Wildcats defeated South Alabama 8-5 and No. 6 Texas 10-9, but fell 6-1 to Missouri and 6-0 to No. 13 Tennessee.
The Cardiac ‘Cats are back
It sure seemed like it was going to be a rough first day for Northwestern. The ‘Cats trailed 5-4 going into their final chance against South Alabama, in a game where the offense looked stagnant outside of a strong fifth inning. In what looked like it would be a shocking loss to start the season, NU’s offense came alive to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Jordyn Rudd, who had already had a bases-clearing triple earlier in the game, ripped a single to left field, scoring Skyler Shellmyer and tying the game 5-5. Not to be outdone, Hannah Cady drilled a pitch over the center fielder’s head to the makeshift wall for a two-run double and put the ‘Cats back in front, 7-5. Nikki Cuchran tacked on one more on a dribbler back up the middle, expanding NU’s lead to 8-5. Lauren Boyd slammed the door shut to give the Wildcats their first win of the season.
As if a one-run deficit wasn’t enough, Northwestern had a larger gap to make up in their night cap against No. 6 Texas. The ‘Cats trailed by as much as 8-3, and were behind 9-7 in the bottom of the sixth. However, the ‘Cats loaded the bases for first-year Kelsey Nader, who laced a two-run single to center field, scoring Cady and Maeve Nelson to knot the game up at nine. In what turned to be the knockout punch, a wild pitch allowed Lauren Sciborski to scurry in from third and give Northwestern a 10-9 lead. Sydney Supple closed out five innings of work to seal the game and give the Cardiac ‘Cats their second comeback win of the day.
Northwestern is searching for a number two pitcher
With the reigning unanimous Big Ten Pitcher of the Year Danielle Williams returning for one final season, no one is surprised that the Wildcats’ ace will carry the bulk of the load this season. Williams, however, did not look as dominant as she was in 2022 on opening weekend. The fifth-year gave up three runs in both outings in the tournament, but still had seven strikeouts in 4.2 innings against South Alabama. There is no reason to be concerned about Williams as she looks to find her groove this season.
Even with the large role Williams is expected to play, coach Kate Drohan wanted to see what her entire pitching staff could do. Boyd, Supple, and Cami Henry all took the bump for Northwestern over the weekend, each to mixed results. Boyd put South Alabama away in her one inning, but gave up five runs against Texas in just two innings. To her credit, she bounced back on Saturday with four innings of one-run softball against Missouri.
Supple held Texas at bay, giving up two runs in five innings to let the Wildcat offense to mount the comeback, yet gave up two earned in not even an inning against Mizzou.
Henry, who worked a solid 1.1 innings against USA and gave up a run, went the distance against Tennessee. Cami gave up six runs in her seven innings and walked five in the loss.
While Williams's shaky performance was surprising, Northwestern will only go as far as she takes them; however, the ‘Cats will need someone to step up when she needs a well-deserved rest. All three pitchers showed flashes of why they should be the next woman in for the Wildcats, yet need to be more consistent before coach Drohan can confidently turn the ball over to them.
Jordyn Rudd is the backbone of this team
After talking about pitching, it is only fair to talk about the other half of the ‘Cats’ battery. Jordyn Rudd is an absolute star, both offensively and defensively. The fifth-year catcher, who batted .370, hit eight homeruns, 52 RBIs, and caught 16 runners stealing in 2022, picked up right where she left off. In the first game of the year, she was 2-for-4, including a three-run, bases-clearing triple to score Northwestern’s first runs of the year, and then later tied it up on an RBI single in the bottom of the seventh. On the defensive side, she had 10 putouts and caught a runner stealing. She continued to perform well throughout the tournament, batting .385 for the weekend and throwing out another runner against Tennessee.
Rudd’s chemistry with the pitchers, especially Williams, is noticeable and she calls a fantastic game behind the dish. The Wildcats' backstop experience has helped her as a leader in the program, but her play has been nothing short of spectacular.
Still working out the kinks
As expected with any beginning of a season, Northwestern made a handful of self-inflicted errors, the pitchers are still working on their stuff, and batters are getting comfortable at the plate.
In just four games, the Wildcats had five errors, including one that led to Texas scratching four runs across the board. The offense has exploded in specific or short bursts but has still struggled to score in two defeats and parts of their victories.
NU has a long way to go before we can truly know what this team is, but for now, there is a lot to clean up before Northwestern takes the field again in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge on Friday. The ‘Cats take on No. 6 Clemson at 2 p.m. CT.