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Softball: As Northwestern searches for answers, its ace’s struggles remains the biggest question

The Wildcats will only go as far as Danielle Williams takes them.

Northwestern Head Coach Kate Drohan speaks to her team before its matchup against No. 7 Clemson on Feb. 17
Northwestern Softball/@NUSBcats

After opening the season 2-2 in the NFCA leadoff classic last week, No. 11 Northwestern headed south to Clemson, South Carolina, for the Big Ten/ACC challenge. It was a mixed bag of results for the Wildcats, doing no better than .500 for the second weekend in a row.

NU began the weekend in ugly fashion, getting mercy-ruled 15-2 in five innings against No. 7 Clemson — the first time the 'Cats were run-ruled since losing 8-0 to No. 13 Minnesota on May 4, 2019. Reigning Big Ten Pitcher of the Year Danielle Williams was pulled before completing a single inning, and it did not get any better for the ‘Cats’ pitching staff.

However, Northwestern got back to even the next morning, defeating Notre Dame 2-0, with Cami Henry going the distance for a complete game shutout. Angela Zedak and Nikki Cuchran contributed RBIs for NU.

In their second matchup with Clemson, the Wildcats gave the Tigers a much better fight but fell just short of getting a big win, losing 3-2. The offense, sluggish for most of the weekend, did not have any Sunday scaries, jumping all over the Fighting Irish 9-3 to finish the weekend at. 500 and remain even through two weeks of play. With a lot of action taking place, here are several takeaways from the ‘Cats’ trip to Death Valley.

Danielle Williams’ struggles continue to mount

It is very early in the season, and maybe I am overreacting, but what we have seen so far out of the reigning, unanimous, Big Ten Pitcher of the Year has been not good.

After giving up three runs in each of her appearances last weekend, coach Kate Drohan turned the ball back to her ace for Friday’s game against No. 7 Clemson, and Williams was simply outmatched. On just her second pitch of the game, McKenzie Clark drilled a pitch from Williams way beyond the center field fence for a solo home run. It did not get any better for No. 24 in purple and white, as the next two batters walked and were hit by a pitch.

Williams got the next Tiger out, but the ball was barreled and hit on a rocket; fortunately for Northwestern, shortstop Maeve Nelson was in the right spot to make a play on the ball. Williams’ shaky command would bite her again, with a wild pitch rolling to the backstop and allowing the runner from third to score easily.

Two batters later, in an attempt to make sure the ball stayed over the plate more, Williams left a ball right down broadway for Aby Viera, who sent it deep to center field for a two-run shot, putting NU in a 4-0 hole not even an inning in. As if it could get worse, the next Clemson batter hit one on the screws over Skyler Shellmyer’s head and landed at the base of the wall for a stand-up double, which forced Coach Drohan to get her ace out of there and go to her bullpen. Williams did not completing a single inning.

Williams was better in Sunday morning’s clash with the Fighting Irish, yet still did not look like the dominant version of herself we saw in 2022. She had to work out of a jam in the second and gave up two home runs in the third. In 3.2 innings of work, she gave up seven hits for three runs, while only striking out four, a stark contrast from what we saw in 2022.

There is a collective sentiment that this team can only go as far as Williams takes them, and so far, she is not playing at the level that anybody expected. She has only taken the bump four times this season, so no reason to hit the panic button just yet, but if No. 24 does not find her groove quickly, this spring could be long for the Wildcats.

The pitching staff is deep

Although Williams has been slogging through the opening of the season, the rest of Northwestern’s rotation has picked up the slack.

After the beatdown that Clemson put on the ‘Cats Friday afternoon, Henry put the team on her back and carried them to victory. Henry, who had a 1.71 ERA last year at DePauw, threw a complete game shutout in a pitchers’ duel against Notre Dame, giving up three hits and striking out two.

Further, Lauren Boyd put Northwestern in a good position to upset No.7 Clemson on Saturday afternoon, pitching all seven innings and giving up three runs — a large difference from how effective the Tigers' offense was a mere 24 hours prior. Then, the following day, Boyd relieved Williams and shut down any possibility of the Fighting Irish mounting a comeback.

As Williams struggles, having depth out of the bullpen is a necessity to keep Northwestern in the games and tread water as the team works out its early-season issues. There will come a point in the season where big outs are gonna be needed from other people than No. 24, and for the ‘Cats, they have a multitude of arms to get the job done.

Offense is hard to come to by

It was a slog for Northwestern to score runs all weekend, as the Wildcats did not open the offensive floodgates until right before they got back on the plane to Evanston. Out of the eight games NU has played so far, it has scored three or fewer runs in five of them. Runners have been stranded in scoring position, and a few baserunning errors have cost the ‘Cats opportunities to scratch runs across the board.

Although Northwestern has shown it can score in bunches, the lack of consistency to score has been an Achilles’ heel for Coach Drohan’s squad so far.