Northwestern (38-11, 20-3 B1G) started out the season 10-8 against a tough non-conference schedule, but after a 2-1 loss to No. 1 Oklahoma, the ‘Cats found themselves. The Wildcats rallied to win 28 of their next 31, culminating in a Big Ten regular season title and a Big Ten conference tournament title. Although the Wildcats will be back in a familiar location at Sharon J. Drysdale Field, the opponents will be very unfamiliar. Here are three things to know about the teams Northwestern will have to go through to reach the Super Regionals:
Every team in Evanston has a dominant starter
Northwestern fans already know about the dominant duo of Lauren Boyd and Danielle Williams, but they are not alone when it comes to aces in this Regional. Miami (OH) (37-18, 21-8 MAC) starter Brianna Pratt has a 2.85 ERA, but that is surprisingly the worst mark for any of the pitchers Northwestern is likely to face over the course of this Regional. Eastern Illinois (34-19, 16-6 OVC) ace Olivia Price is the best of the pitchers on any of the teams if you just look at ERA (she owns a 1.68 ERA), but of course, the collective strength of their opponents plays into that as well.
Price only appeared once against teams in this season’s NCAA Tournament field, when she faced Grand Canyon, the autobid of the Western Athletic Conference. In that outing, she gave up six hits and two earned runs in a three-inning outing. Perhaps given the opponents, Stephanie Schoonover of Kentucky (30-20-1, 10-14 SEC) is the true ace of the region. The SEC had a great year, as 12 of the 13 teams in the conference made the NCAA Tournament. Northwestern beat Schoonover earlier this year, tallying two runs in three innings against her, before adding on six more runs in a 9-3 victory.
Schoonover continued to face quality lineup after quality lineup in conference play, and still had a 1.45 ERA with 146 strikeouts in 96.1 innings, prior to an injury that sidelined her for about a month. Since coming back from the injury, her ERA has climbed to 1.90, but that number is still good enough to be considered an ace, and if she can get back to her pre-injury levels in time for the Regional, a rematch with Kentucky would be Northwestern’s scariest potential matchup.
Expect a power surge
Any time you can mention a team and Oklahoma in the same sentence talking about softball statistics, that team is doing something right. That is the case with Miami (OH) and home runs. The Redhawks have slugged their way through the season, and with 91 home runs, they trail only Oklahoma and Virginia Tech in home runs per game and total home runs. Miami (OH) is also one of four teams to be top eight in the nation in both home runs and doubles per game (Oklahoma, Texas Tech and Northern Iowa are the other three), indicating that they will come to Evanston ready to do some damage.
While Kentucky and Eastern Illinois are not nearly as scary offensively as Miami (OH) is, both teams can be great on the offensive end as well. Kentucky averaged over five runs per game in the gauntlet that is the SEC. They also were able to score three runs off Danielle Williams in the matchup of the Wildcats earlier this season, although Williams pitched a complete game, and Northwestern walked away with the victory. Eastern Illinois won the Ohio Valley Conference tournament despite only scoring five runs across three games, but they have had smaller stretches throughout the season where the offense has been strong.
An overall lack of experience (with a notable exception)
All three of these teams are solid across the board, as one would expect for NCAA Tournament teams. However, there is one team with a clear experience advantage over the others. Kentucky made the Super Regionals in 2021 (and some players from their 2019 Super Regional roster also remain on the team), whereas Eastern Illinois will be making their first NCAA Tournament appearance in school history, and Miami (OH) has never made it past the Regionals in school history.
Northwestern will have a clear experience advantage over any opponent they face, having made it to the Women’s College World Series last season. However, the adrenaline and excitement from making the tournament for the first time could also keep a team like Eastern Illinois loose and even more dangerous if they get on a roll early. These teams are balanced enough to compete with each other, and led by dominant aces on the mound, they all have a chance at success. That experience advantage Northwestern has will likely lead to the ‘Cats being better composed than other teams in the Evanston Regional, but in all likelihood, it will be the team who plays the cleanest softball over the course of the weekend that will advance to the Super Regionals.