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Softball: ‘Cats clinch share of Big Ten title, sweep Nebraska

Back-to-Back for the first time in nearly 40 years.

Northwestern Softball/@NUSBcats

There is a reason this team is called the Cardiac ‘Cats.

After taking two out of three in Ann Arbor last weekend, Northwestern faced off in a three-game set with Nebraska at the J. The ‘Cats and the Huskers held the top two spots in the Big Ten before they clashed, so this weekend was the biggest test the Wildcats had faced all season in conference play.

When the teams met on Friday, it was an expected battle of aces with Danielle Williams going against Courtney Wallace for UNL. Wallace, who leads the conference with 180 innings pitched this season, was no match for the scorching NU bats. The Wildcats had back-to-back double-digit innings in Friday’s game, and slugged three home runs to cruise to a 22-4 run-rule victory.

On the other hand, the weekend's games provided more challenges for NU. Northwestern struggled to manufacture runs early in Saturday’s contest, falling behind 6-2 heading into the final frame. However, the ‘Cats battled back. Hannah Cady scored on a wild pitch to cut the deficit to three, and NU loaded the bases before the Huskers had even recorded an out. In a flurry of moves, Coach Drohan sent Lauren Sciborski to the plate with the bases juiced. Sciborski, who only had five hits all year heading into the weekend, became the unsung hero, drilling a bases-clearing double to tie the game at six. A few innings later, Kansas Robinson called game and launched a walk-off, two-run homer over the center field fence to lift the Wildcats over the Cornhuskers, 8-6.

With a chance to complete the sweep, remain undefeated at home in regular season play and clinch a share of the Big Ten championship, Northwestern had to fight through the slop and poor pitching in Sunday’s matinee. Cami Henry started in the circle for NU, and her recent struggles continued to mount. The fifth-year gave up six earned runs on five hits, including four dingers, in just two innings — her fourth consecutive game of giving up two or more home runs. With rain pouring down and the wind howling, the ‘Cats trailed 9-4 in the bottom of the fifth; however, Northwestern launched a two-out rally, having seven batters reach base and scoring six runs. Robinson, whose bat has been on fire lately, scored the go-ahead run on a wild pitch to give the Wildcats a 10-9 lead. After a two-hour rain delay, Danielle Williams slammed the door shut on Nebraska, clinching the victory and a share of the Big Ten regular season championship. This is Northwestern’s first time winning back-to-back conference titles since 1986-1987.

With the ‘Cats still undefeated at the J, here are the biggest takeaways from this weekend's series sweep of the Huskers.

Never Counted Out

Whether they are down one or down five, in the first inning or down to their final out, it never feels like the ‘Cats are out of the game. Northwestern has not flinched all year when teams throw the first punch and keep delivering the knockout blow. On Saturday, the Wildcats could not score throughout the game, They left runners stranded multiple innings, and their pitching struggled to keep the Huskers off the basepaths, yet it always felt like they were going to find a way to win the game.

Three outs away from defeat on Saturday, with Nebraska’s ace in the circle, NU got the job done, as Sciborski and Robinson met the moment. As if rallying from four down was not impressive enough, the Wildcats decided to give themselves a challenge and came back from down five on Sunday. Even Mother Nature tried to stop the ‘Cats’ comeback, but it appears nothing can halt NU’s scorching hot tear right now.

No matter if they are blowing out opponents by double-digits or need some late-game heroics, the ‘Cats find a new way to win each night — and it is always entertaining.

Contributions from everywhere

This weekend's sweep does not happen if not for two players' timely hitting. I am not talking about the ‘Wildcats' slew of top players, but rather two of the lesser-known names on the roster — Lauren Sciborski and Kendall Peterson.

Sciborski came into the weekend racking up a mere five hits this season, and just one in conference play. With Rudd still behind the dish, No. 2’s opportunities have been limited, yet she has made most of them count. Despite having only 27 at-bats this season, Sciborski remained poised and drove the ball all the way to the wall. Her power is undeniable, and when Rudd departs NU at the end of the season, the ‘Cats’ newest backstop will be ready to take her place.

It was fitting that Peterson’s big moment came on senior day. The senior has not seen an immense amount of playing time, having 19 plate appearances entering the weekend. Yet, when her name has been called, Peterson has been ready. Even in the rain on Sunday, the senior still found her pitch and laced it into the outfield to start the Wildcats’ rally to clinch the Big Ten. For Peterson to get the big moment on senior day, directly helping NU win the conference, is amazing to see for someone who has dedicated their collegiate career to the program.

While Northwestern got everyone involved in Friday’s 22-4 victory, to see reserve players come into the game and make an instant impact proves how deep this squad is — a key advantage in postseason play.

Danielle Williams is still fresh

Watching Courtney Wallace, who had thrown 173.2 innings this season before the series, pitch in every game this series, my thoughts instantly trickled back to No. 24 last season. Williams pitched 251 innings last year, including 430 pitches thrown in the Tempe Super Regional. When Northwestern made it to OKC, their ace’s arm had nothing left in the tank. Flash forward a year, the fifth-year is nowhere near her total heading into the postseason. Williams has only pitched 105.1 innings this season. With the development of Lauren Boyd and adding the transfer Henry, Williams has been able to keep her arm fresh — and her stuff looks as good as ever.

NU closes out the regular season next weekend in Piscataway as the Wildcats will take on Rutgers in a three-game series.