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Softball: Northwestern annihilates Illinois and Penn State, earns sole possession of first in Big Ten

Scoring 50 runs in a week seems more than decent.

Northwestern Softball/@NUSBcats

As the slate of Big Ten games gains steam, Northwestern softball has cruised through its first 10 conference matches. Starting the week off in Champaign against the Illini, six different Wildcats launched the ball over the fence for home runs — a program record — in a 12-0 mercy rule win.

After demolishing its in-state rivals, the ‘Cats returned to Evanston to greet the Penn State Nittany Lions for a three-game set at Sharron J. Drysdale field. In the opening contest, NU rallied for six runs in the bottom of the sixth inning to break a 3-3 tie and take the first game of the weekend, 9-3. On Saturday afternoon, the Wildcats dominated from the first pitch. In the second and third innings, Northwestern scored double digits in each frame and ended the 24-6 (run-rule) contest with another program record: the most runs scored in a single game. In the final meeting on Sunday afternoon, the teams were locked in a pitching duel. After late back-to-back jacks put the Nittany Lions on top 2-1, the Wildcats managed to load the bases with no outs in their last trip to the plate. Enter: Jordyn Rudd. The graduate student belted a ball out of the stadium for a walk-off grand slam, giving the ‘Cats a 5-2 victory and the series sweep. After this past weekend's results, NU moves to 9-1 in conference play, overtaking the Indiana Hoosiers for first place in the Big Ten. As the Wildcats have now picked up victories in 14 of their last 15 games, here are the major storylines from Northwestern’s undefeated week.

The ‘Cats’ bats are scorching hot

As long as a player wears purple and white right now, if she steps in the batter’s box, there is a strong chance she will find a way on base. Northwestern scored 50 runs in its four matches this week, averaging 12.5 runs a game — four more runs than Oklahoma, the top team in the nation, averages.

Against the Fighting Illini, Northwestern displayed power throughout its lineup. Kelsey Nader got her first collegiate home run on a three-run bomb over the center field fence, and Maeve Nelson, who has struggled this year at the plate, walloped a full-count pitch over the right field wall for a two-run homer — her first of the season. Freshman Kansas Robinson blasted a homer and a triple in her first two at-bats. Even Emmie Farnam, who only has six starts this season, came off the bench and nailed a pinch-hit home run — her second of the year, which is the most she’s ever tallied in a season.

Even as the weather got warmer over the weekend, the ‘Cats’ lineup was hotter. Leadoff hitter Skyler Shellmyer is always on base and is a consistent threat on the bags. No. 8 scored five runs this weekend, including an incredible tag-avoiding slide into home, dodging Penn State catcher Cassie Lindmark. She picked up four hits this weekend, including a two-strike single in the series finale to load the bases for Rudd’s grand slam.

Nikki Cochran cannot miss the softball right now. Even when she doesn’t get a hit, she is driving the ball all the way to the fence. Cochran’s 10-game hit and RBI streak ended Sunday, but she still notched three knocks and as many RBIs this weekend. Cochran entered Big Ten play batting .203, but is now hitting .333 just 11 games later. The first baseman has been on an absolute tear since conference play began.

In the ‘Cats’ six-run rally on Friday, it was the unsung heroes of the team who lifted the squad to victory. After giving up a game-tying homer in the top of the frame, Ayanna Lindsay led off for NU. She battled to work the count full before belting the ball off Welsh-Ryan Arena to take the lead back. Nelson, who’s batting under the Mendoza line, ripped a double off the center field wall to score two. Northwestern’s resident slugger Angela Zedak put the nail in the coffin when she launched a three-run bomb over the right field fence.

To list every single run in Saturday’s game would be 1000 words itself, but what the Wildcats did was nothing short of remarkable. Penn State came into the weekend as the best pitching team in the Big Ten, and NU hung 24 on them. The freshmen — Nader, Robinson and Donahey — combined for four hits and 7 RBIs. Donahey, normally used as a pinch runner, hit her first collegiate home run. Rudd and Cochran both homered, and Nelson extended her hit streak to three with an RBI single. It seemed that no matter who NU sent to the plate, the ball always found the open space. Even Sydney Supple, a pitcher for the Wildcats, ripped a two-run single in the bottom of the fourth.

On Sunday, Grace Nieto returned to the lineup for the first time in nearly a month, and the sophomore did not miss a beat. No. 22 picked up an RBI single and started the rally in the final frame with a base hit. Robinson and Shellmyer both intended to bunt, but neither could get the ball to stay fair and fell behind to two-strike counts. Trailing in the counts, both girls knocked the ball right up the middle for base hits, loading the bases and setting up No. 36. If you are a Northwestern softball player, coach or fan, there is no one else you’d rather have at the plate than Rudd — and she delivered. She worked herself into a hitter’s count and drilled a 3-1 pitch over the left field wall for a walk-off grand slam, sending the J into a frenzy.

If the Wildcats’ remain this hot at the plate — one through nine — it will be a problem for any team trying to win a national championship.

Everyone can pitch

Heading into the weekend, Penn State was the best pitching team in the Big Ten, but by the end of the three games, it was clear Northwestern had the better staff. In her two starts this week, reigning Big Ten Pitcher of the Year Danielle Williams recorded 11 strikeouts in each game, tied for her most this season. The fifth-year’s signature changeup was filthy, diving down on opponents, forcing swings and misses over the top of the ball. When the Wildcats were trailing by one on Sunday, Williams came in and held the Nittany Lions’ lead right where it was, striking out two as she retired the side. While No. 24 has given up the long ball more than usual this season, she looks as dominant as she did during her remarkable 2022 campaign.

Behind Williams, both Lauren Boyd and Cami Henry showed out in their starts this weekend. Boyd pitched a solid six innings. She struck out six and gave up five hits, two of which were homers. Henry went four innings in Saturday's abbreviated contest and also had a solid start. She gave up three hits, yet two of them went over the fence. She did strike out three as well.

The good news for Northwestern is Williams does not need to carry them through the regular season. The fifth-year, who threw 251 innings last season, has only pitched 72.1 innings so far this year. She will be much less fatigued when the ‘Cats need her the most in postseason play.

Northwestern returns to the diamond on Wednesday at the J for an intrastate clash with the Illini at 4 p.m. CDT. After their final game with Illinois, the Wildcats will travel up to Madison to take on Wisconsin in a three-game set over the weekend.