After six innings, Northwestern softball found itself in a familiar place as the entire season.
In the Big Ten Tournament championship game, NU’s offense could not buy a hit. The ‘Cats had one hit and four baserunners on the day — every ball seemed to find a Hoosier glove. All in all, it just appeared as though it was not the ‘Cats’ day. However, a sense of calm remained.
There’s a reason this team is called the Cardiac ‘Cats; even down to their last out, you can never count them out. Whether sitting in either dugout or on the couch watching, everyone knew that Northwestern would find a way to pull a rabbit out of a hat to capture the title. Once Hannah Cady smacked a double, I couldn’t type anything. My hands were shaking, I started to sweat, and couldn’t help but laugh, saying to my friends, “Of course they are going to do it again.”
With three outs left, their backs against the wall, something clicked for the Wildcats. Fifth-year Jordyn Rudd, who was 0-for-6 in the Big Ten Tournament through that point, slashed a pitch through the left side of the infield for a leadoff single. The junior Cady singled and advanced on a throw to third, which set NU up with two runners in scoring position. Walks to fifth-year Nikki Cuchran, including the game-tying wild pitch, and senior Angela Zedak loaded the bases. The fifth-year Nelson was the hero, drilling a pitch over the center fielder's head — walking it off and clinching the title. It is a story we’ve seen time and time again this year. From its first day of the season against South Alabama and Texas, all the way to winning its first Big Ten Tournament championship since 2008, Northwestern has found a way to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
What do all of those players have in common besides the fact that they all play for the Wildcats? Experience. For Northwestern, having a veteran team is a huge advantage heading into the NCAA Tournament — and it showed in Saturday’s game.
After its run to the Women’s College World Series last year, the ‘Cats appeared to be facing a total reconstruction; however, other plans came to fruition. When Rudd, Cuchran, Nelson, Skyler Shellmyer and Danielle Williams all came back for one last season, the expectations around this squad skyrocketed, yet have still been exceeded. With 1,114 combined starts, the five graduate students have been the cornerstones of the program for half a decade. With their time coming to an end, they are the key figures for Northwestern’s attempt to return to the Women's College World Series.
When Indiana scored on a very strange rundown, tag/out-of-the-baseline call, a young team could have let it impact the rest of the game, but the ‘Cats brushed it right off. Nothing seems to faze the ‘Cats, because they know that they are never out of a ball game. It would have been easy to roll over after picking up one hit in six innings, be satisfied with being regular season champions and turn the attention to the NCAA Tournament, but NU did not do that. Instead, Kate Drohan’s team fought back resiliently, playing great defense and not changing its style of play to keep up with the high-powered offense of Indiana. The ability to remain in the moment is a sign of a veteran-led team and will become a factor in the close games of the NCAA Tournament.
Furthermore, when the Wildcats need a member to step up and deliver, the five fifth-years always seem to meet the moment.
In the circle, Williams has been the most consistent player, not pitcher, for Northwestern. In the big games, Coach Drohan turns the ball over to her ace and lets her do what she does best: dominate opposing batters. This season, and specifically this tournament, were no different. Williams pitched the final 14 innings of Northwestern’s championship run, giving up zero earned runs and striking out eight.
When the offense could not buy a hit on Saturday, it was No. 24’s job to keep the ‘Cats in the game, and she did just that. Williams obliterated a Hoosier offense that is sixth in the nation in runs scored, holding them off the board except for one questionable call. Her changeup had batters way in front and made them whiff over the top. I said many times this year that the ‘Cats will go as far as Danielle Williams takes them, and performances like Saturday show why. She kept NU in the game and took the burden off the bats. There was a reason she was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. After five years and four First-Team All-Big Ten selections, Williams’ ability to dominate in the circle is Northwestern’s largest asset heading into the NCAA Tournament.
At the plate, NU’s experience has continually shown through. Nelson, who has struggled all year, is a prime example of trusting her swing. She has batted below .200 for most of the season, down a sizable amount from last season, but has continually found a way to help the Wildcats. It would have been very easy for Nelson to get impatient and try to completely change her swing, but her experience shows that she can be successful. After being dropped in the lineup from second to seventh, Nelson did not complain, but instead kept her head down and went to work. The shortstop’s effort paid off, as she launched the game-winner on Saturday and reaped the rewards of her five years’ worth of games.
The same can be said with Cuchran, who was batting .203 heading into Big Ten play, but turned it around, hitting .420 in conference games. It was Cuchran’s eight-pitch at-bat, fouling off multiple pitches, where ball four was the wild pitch that tied the game. The fifth year didn’t get overzealous, trying to walk it off herself; instead, she stayed disciplined and battled — eventually forcing a massive mistake from IU.
While Rudd had a great regular season, she struggled in the tournament. Trailing by one, Rudd could have pressed and swung for the fences; instead, she stayed true to her approach and laced a single through the infield. Rudd understood that she didn’t need to win it herself, but just pass the baton to the next person. That is a sign of a veteran team because everyone is playing connected. No one is stat-hunting or feeling pressure to lift the team up individually.
Shellmyer plays this role perfectly. She knows her job is to get on base and run, and No. 8 does what is asked of her to perfection.
In the NCAA Tournament, a team has to be prepared for anything. Thanks to the leadership and play of Northwestern’s five veterans, the ‘Cats are prepared to make another run to OKC. Now, it is time to put that experience to use.