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Softball NCAA Tournament preview: Everything you need to know about the ‘Cats’ quest for a title

The buzz around this team is palpable and the bandwagon still has room, but it’s departing soon.

Photo by Andy Wenstrand / Big Ten Conference

After Northwestern captured its first Big Ten Tournament title since 2008 this past weekend, the ‘Cats were named the No. 12 team in the nation. With the playoff bracket set and primed to kick off later this week, let’s preview the postseason.

How did Northwestern get here?

After an inspiring postseason run last season, the Wildcats had high expectations heading into this season. Early in the year, the team did not look like themselves, starting just 4-6 with several losses to ranked opponents. In late February, the ‘Cats turned it around, getting key performances from a deeper pitching staff than last year’s team. By the time conference play rolled around, the Wildcats found their stride, ripping off win after win en route to a 20-3 record in Big Ten play and 38-11 overall record. Just last weekend, Northwestern capped off an amazing regular season with three consecutive victories in the conference tournament, against Iowa, Nebraska and Indiana, to clinch the title. The ‘Cats remain undefeated (11-0) when playing at Sharon J. Drysdale Field heading into Regionals.

The ‘Cats are led by head coach Kate Drohan, who was recently named the Big Ten Coach of the Year for the fifth time in her illustrious career. On the diamond, seven players were named to All-Big Ten teams: Nikki Cuchran and Danielle Williams were named to the First Team, Hannah Cady, Jordyn Rudd and Skyler Shellmyer were honored on the Second Team, as Kelsey Nader and Kansas Robinson were named to the All-Freshman Team.

How does the tournament work?

64 teams currently remain in contention for the national title, each divided into 16 groups of four teams. Each four-team group plays a double-elimination regional round to produce one program that advances to the super regional. Because Northwestern was ranked as one of the 16 best programs, it gets to host a regional in Evanston. The three other programs in the Evanston field are Miami (OH), Eastern Illinois and Kentucky. On Friday, Northwestern plays Eastern Illinois to kick off its postseason run.

Should the Wildcats survive and advance, they would move to the super regionals, which would be played the following weekend. The likely opponent for Northwestern would be Alabama, and the ‘Cats would have to travel to Tuscaloosa to battle the Crimson Tide. However, if Long Island University, Middle Tennessee or Central Arkansas can upset the No. 5-seeded favorites in Alabama’s regional, Northwestern would get to host more softball. This second round format is different from the regional round, instead employing a simple best-of-three series.

A win in the super regionals would mean a trip to the College World Series in Oklahoma City. In the opening days of June, the eight teams who make it that far are sorted into two groups of four where they will play in a double-elimination tournament just like the regional round. The two teams who survive their respective fields of four face off in a best-of-three series to be named national champions.

How did the Wildcats fare last year?

A year ago, the Wildcats marched into postseason play after a 40-10 regular season (19-4 Big Ten). Ranked No. 9, the Wildcats hosted a regional in Evanston where they churned out three consecutive victories in convincing fashion, beating Oakland, 9-2, and defeating McNeese twice via run rule to advance from the first round.

The ‘Cats then traveled to Tempe, Arizona, to take on the No. 8 Arizona State Sun Devils in the super regionals. In a back-and-forth riveting series, the teams split the first two games of the best-of-three, with both of the first two contests going into extra frames. The ‘Cats rallied from being down 5-0 in the winner-take-all game to secure an 8-6 victory and advance to the Women’s College World Series.

In Oklahoma City, the ‘Cats ran into the buzzsaw known as the No. 1 Oklahoma Sooners, who quickly put Northwestern on the elimination bubble. No. 5 UCLA ended Northwestern’s season the next day with a 6-1 win over the Wildcats.

What are major storylines to watch?

Apart from the quest for a title, here are some narratives to keep an eye on:

  • Danielle Williams, Northwestern’s all-time winningest pitcher will play her final games as a ‘Cat in this tourney. The purple legend is the one of five pitchers in Big Ten history to earn four First Team selections in a career. Her curtain call will be must-see television.
  • Williams isn’t the only Northwestern staple who is making a last hurrah. Jordyn Rudd, Nikki Cuchran, Cami Henry, Skyler Shellmyer and Maeve Nelson are all graduate students who have delivered big plays for the ‘Cats across their careers. Angela Zedak is also a senior, and the ‘Cats know their window is now, as this team could look very different next year.
  • What will Northwestern’s rotation look like? In postseason play, Danielle Williams shouldered a massive load for the team and put in a herculean effort, pitching 49.1 innings over a two-week stretch. This year, Northwestern has more depth with the emergence of Cami Henry and Lauren Boyd. It will be interesting to track whether Drohan relies on Williams just as much as a year ago and how the distribution of innings will work out.
  • Who will be the postseason hero? With lots of veteran leadership on the team, there is no shortage of candidates. Last year in the six regional and super regional games, Jordyn Rudd hit a monster 14-of-23 to power the Wildcat offense. Could she repeat? Could it be first-year Kansas Robinson, who leads the team in OPS?