If you thought last season’s Women’s College World Series run would be an anomaly after the graduation of Rachel Lewis, you have been proven very, very wrong.
Despite the loss of Northwestern’s all-time home run leader and the 2022 Big Ten Player of the Year, the Wildcats haven’t skipped a beat. With three weekends left in the regular season, NU appears to be on a collision course with the Big Ten title, which would be its second straight.
It’s incredibly difficult to replace someone who led the team in runs, walks, homers, RBIs and stolen bases. Yet, the ‘Cats have managed to remain at the top of the conference standings because every single member of their starting lineup — including their five super seniors — has stepped up.
This season, rather than being led by one superstar, Northwestern has found contributions from all parts of the team. Let’s take a look into who has been the most significant for NU’s run to dominance in 2023, starting with the position players:
Skyler Shellmyer, CF, graduate student
Shellmyer is in her third year of leading off for the ‘Cats, and to say she’s done anything other than give them a spark in that spot would be an understatement. In that time, she’s hovered around the .400 mark for on base percentage, while notching a whopping 50 stolen bases once she’s reached first. As the Wildcats’ hit leader in 2023, she’s proven time and time again that she can get into a position to score, and has gotten on base in 19 consecutive games dating back to March 18. While not someone who’s going to slug the ball deep often, Shellmyer has been a key cog in Northwestern’s success.
Jordyn Rudd, C, graduate student
After struggling massively for much of the season last year, Rudd turned up the heat when it mattered the most, batting .535 in eight NCAA Tournament games. That batting prominence has carried over into this season, where Rudd is currently hitting .302 and leading the team with 32 RBIs. However, the super senior has meant far more to the ‘Cats than just a dominant bat. In 2022, Rudd earned the Rawlings Gold Glove Award, the Johnny Bench Award (best female catcher) and was named the National Defensive Player of the Year. She’s continued her defensive success at catcher this year, and once again has been masterful at framing pitches and gunning down runners that are trying to steal second.
Nikki Cuchran, 1B, graduate student
Before Big Ten play, Cuchran was batting at just a .203 clip. In the 15 games since, the first baseman has been on fire. She’s hit at an astonishing rate of .555 since conference games began, and now leads the team with a .356 batting average on the season. Cuchran has gotten on base more frequently than any other Wildcat in 2023, and has provided a much-needed jolt out of the middle of the lineup. It’s no coincidence that as Cuchran has heated up, so has Northwestern, going 14-1 in that time.
Angela Zedak, LF, senior
While no one may be able to replicate the 23 home runs that Lewis had last season, Zedak has stepped up as the primary slugger with eight deep shots of her own. The team leader in OPS and slugging percentage, but also being second in strikeouts, Zedak has been an incredibly hit-or-miss player with potential for a big play every time she picks up the bat. With that being said, she’s been a great hard-hitter this season, batting .311 overall, and is always a threat from the middle of the lineup to bring her teammates home. Zedak is also the only Wildcat starter with a perfect 1.000 fielding percentage from her spot in left field.
Lauren Boyd, P, junior
A season after dealing with injuries and pitching just 47 innings, Boyd has broken out as one of the best pitchers in the Big Ten. Last year, Danielle Williams was a lone wolf from the pitcher’s circle, and ended up throwing the third-most innings in all of Division I. With her arm nearly falling off from the amount of pitches thrown, the Wildcats flamed out in the Women’s College World Series. Now, Boyd has proven not only to be a solid No. 2 pitcher behind the ‘Cats’ ace, but a legitimate 1b to Williams’ 1a. Boyd’s emergence has proven crucial to the Wildcats’ success, as the junior has allowed just three earned runs over the last month and currently ranks fourth in the Big Ten in ERA.
Cami Henry, P, graduate student
In addition to Boyd, Henry has also bolstered a pitching staff that was so one-dimensional by the end of 2022. Since transferring from Division III school DePauw, Henry has contributed performances that most teams would expect out of their ace or No. 2 pitcher... As Northwestern’s No. 3. This depth has allowed Kate Drohan to keep the number of pitches on her three pitchers’ arms down, setting up the ‘Cats well for a postseason run. NU has won seven of the last eight games that Henry has pitched in, with six of those being starts.
Danielle Williams, P, graduate student
If you had predicted last year’s unanimous Big Ten Pitcher of the Year would have the third-highest ERA on her own team, nearly everyone would’ve called you crazy. However, that’s been the case, as Williams took the brunt of many top-ranked teams early. Despite the early struggles against the nation’s top batters, Williams has been as good as ever, leading the Wildcats in wins, saves and strikeouts. She’s still phenomenal at finding the corners of the strike zone, and her arsenal has stumped batters across the country. Williams is second with 60 strikeouts in Big Ten play, despite pitching 30 fewer innings than the conference’s leader.
Northwestern softball has been incredible this season, and has found help from the entire roster. The bats have managed to make up for the graduation of last year’s seniors and are still averaging six runs per game (down from 6.55 in 2022) as a team. However, none of the contributions have been more massive than that of the pitching staff. In 2022, Northwestern struggled by only being able to have one dominant pitcher down the stretch, and Williams burnt out due to the sheer amount of pitches thrown.
At this point of the year last year, Williams had pitched 140 innings. Currently, that number for her is just 83.
For Williams, the best ability is availability, and the pitching group has done a great job of keeping Williams’ arm fresh in anticipation of the postseason. When the ace has her off days, there’s no pressure for her to finish the game due to the lack of talent behind her, and either Boyd or Henry can come in and provide a starting pitcher performance in relief. As great as Williams was last year, the Wildcats were just seventh in the conference with a 3.23 overall ERA in Big Ten play. Now, they’ve earned the second-best rate in the Big Ten in such games, with a 2.42 ERA.
Even without the stardom of Lewis, Northwestern may be better primed to make a postseason run because of the strength of its pitching staff. The bats have long had depth in the lineup, and now, the arms do as well.
With only three regular season series left, the ‘Cats are in the driver’s seat of the Big Ten. Northwestern has all the tools to make another Women’s College World Series run. All the Wildcats need to do now is to stay hot and execute.