As Northwestern softball closes out its non-conference play this weekend, the ‘Cats look to ride their momentum after a strong weekend in the Cardinal Classic. NU left Louisville 3-1, defeating the Cards twice and picking up another shutout victory against Northern Kentucky. However, the Wildcats did not complete the weekend sweep, losing to Toledo 5-2. The victory over the Norse pushed the ‘Cats over .500 for the first time since opening the season 2-0 against South Alabama and No. 6 Texas.
Despite the positive weekend, Northwestern has been struggling on the diamond so far this season. The ‘Cats, who sit at 9-7, have lost as many games as they did through April 20, 2022 last season. Sure, most of NU’s defeats have been to top 25 teams, and more than half have been to top 15 teams, but those are games Northwestern has won in the past and needs to win to get back to Oklahoma City. The ‘Cats have slid nearly all the way out of the top 25. NU started the season ranked No. 8 but now sits at No. 22. As the Wildcats seem to be continuing to find their footing this season, it is time to take a look at why Northwestern struggled out of the gate.
It has been said every week, but Northwestern will only go as far as Danielle Williams takes them. The reigning Big Ten Pitcher of the Year, who threw over 250 innings in 2022, returned to Evanston for her final season of eligibility. No. 24 did not start her last dance with the same dominance that she had in 2022; in fact, the graduate student looked shaky in the circle. Williams gave up at least three runs in her first four appearances this season, struggling to locate her pitches and force batters to take uncomfortable swings.
Her precarious start to 2023 came to a head against No. 7 Clemson. The California native was rocked in South Carolina. On her second pitch of the game, A 1-0 pitch from No. 24 was right down Broadway and belted over the center field fence for a solo home run. It did not get better for the fifth year, as she gave up another home run and allowed a runner to score on a wild pitch. It was evident that the ‘Cats’ ace did not have her best stuff, and Kate Drohan pulled her before she could even complete an inning. It was the shortest start in her five years at NU and was disconcerting for ‘Cats supporters hoping to make a trip back to OKC.
However, in the last two weekends, the fifth-year has looked much more like the ace that Northwestern had expected. In her last 16 innings, Williams has only given up one earned run and matched her season-high seven strikeouts. Her command of the strike zone is much better and batters are having a difficult time barreling up the ball. If NU gets the version of Williams that she has been over the last two weeks, the ‘Cats are in a prime position to be a contender for a conference championship.
The rest of Northwestern’s pitching staff has been holding down the fort while its ace works through her early season issues. Transfer Cami Henry has been phenomenal since trading in DePauw’s black and gold for purple and white. In her three most recent starts, Henry has not given up an earned run and has thrown two complete game shutouts. Henry, not normally a strikeout pitcher, racked up nine Ks in her last start against Northern Kentucky.
She has been a perfect complement to Williams, and the Wildcats have a dominant one-two punch to face the top teams in the nation. Lauren Boyd has also been stout for NU, giving up less than three runs in her last five starts. The ‘Cats’ pitching has kept them in many games so far this season, but can the offense capitalize?
Losing Rachel Lewis to graduation, who led the ‘Cats with 23 home runs and 62 RBIs in 2022, Northwestern’s effort to replace her offensive production would have to be a team effort. However, it has been a slog for the Wildcats’ offense this year. NU is averaging 4.38 runs per game, down from 6.55 runs per game from last season. In over half of their games, the ‘Cats have failed to score more than two runs.
While fifth-year Jordyn Rudd continues to be a commanding presence in the batter box, leading the team in batting average, RBIs and home runs, the rest of the Wildcats have struggled at the plate. Angela Zedak is the only other ‘Cat to slug for double-digit RBIs and multiple home runs, and besides Rudd, only Grace Nieto is batting over .300. Nikki Cuchran, who batted .330 with 50 RBIs in 2022, is batting a mere .209 in 2023, collecting nine hits through 16 games.
Furthermore, graduate Skyler Shellmyer, who leads off for the ‘Cats, has missed five games this year, putting the ‘Cats at a disadvantage from the jump. Shellmyer, who batted .348 last season, is an ideal leadoff hitter because she puts pressure on pitchers with her ability to get on base and is a threat on the base path. The fifth-year stole 22 bases last season but has swiped just two so far in 2023. In fact, the ‘Cats have taken only five bases this season, putting them 279th in the nation with .33 steals per game.
With runners not getting on base, power hitters like Rudd, Cady and Maeve Nelson are not able to change the game with one swing of the bat. The offense seems to pour it on once a weekend, but inconsistency is what is preventing NU from defeating the top teams in college softball. Assuming that Northwestern’s offense plays up to its potential, a Big Ten title and a trip to OKC will seem more plausible.
The Wildcats finish up their cross-country travels next weekend in Oklahoma City at the Omni Hall of Fame Classic and return to Drysdale Field on March 21 against UIC.