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Rapid Reaction: Northwestern muscles past Miami 5-4 to win Evanston Regional

It was slightly more dramatic than it needed to be, but the Cardiac ‘Cats came through once again.

Northwestern Softball / Twitter NUSBcats

One play can change the course of a game. Whether it’s a home run or a key strikeout, softball matchups can shift dramatically from the actions of just one player.

In the case of Northwestern softball, that one player was Angela Zedak. Her sprint from second base on an infield play proved to be the tying run in the sixth inning. Northwestern (41-11, 20-3 B1G), survived Miami (OH) (39-20, 21-8 MAC) 5-4 in a thrilling back-and-forth affair.

Northwestern’s pitchers were dominant all day, with Lauren Boyd and Danielle Williams combining for 15 strikeouts. On offense, Jordyn Rudd went 2-for-4 with 2 RBIs, and Nikki Cuchran had a two-run home run to add to the fireworks.

Northwestern opened on offense but wasn’t able to get much action at first. Skyler Shellmyer grounded out to first base to open up the game, while Kansas Robinson, who was devastating against Kentucky, struck out on a check swing call.

However, things soon switched. Jordyn Rudd slapped a ball through the Miami shortstop’s legs to reach first, and Hannah Cady followed that with a single to left. Despite a serenade from the Northwestern-heavy crowd, Cuchran couldn’t bring either runner home. Her groundout stranded two and left the score knotted at 0-0 heading into the bottom of the first.

Boyd earned the start for the Wildcats, looking to atone for the four-run inning she gave up to Kentucky the day prior. She opened the game with a filthy strikeout to retire the RedHawks’ Allie Cummins, then induced a soft pop to right field, which Kelsey Nader snagged with a spectacular diving catch.

Unfortunately for the Wildcats, Karli Spaid did not come to Evanston to mess around. Boyd left a ball hanging over the plate on a 3-1 count, and Spaid gave it a ride to deep center to give Miami a 1-0 lead. Boyd bounced back quickly though, striking out the next batter to keep the deficit at one.

Boyd reasserted her control very easily in the second inning. After getting Kate Kobayashi to swing at a ball on the ground for strike three, she earned her second strikeout of the inning on Jenna Golembiewski. She then closed out a stellar inning with a third straight swinging strikeout.

In the third inning, there was another close play at second. Robinson reached on a walk, but after that Rudd grounded into an apparent double play. The throw by the Miami second baseman went into the Wildcats’ dugout, but the umpires ruled runner’s interference on Robinson. That meant Rudd was out as well, ending the inning.

Boyd’s third inning was much less dominant than her second. After her fifth straight strikeout, she forced a weak grounder in the direction of second base. Miami’s Maddie Banks made the most of the opportunity, though, beating the throw by Grace Nieto to reach first safely. A few batters later, Holly Blaska reached on an infield single, pushing Banks to second.

Boyd was clearly bothered by the baserunners. When some controversial calls pushed Spaid to first on a walk, Northwestern’s pitcher seemed to lose a bit of control. Her walk of Riley Coyne pushed the RedHawks’ second run across. In spite of this troublesome situation, Boyd halted the damage there with her eighth strikeout of the afternoon.

In the fourth inning, Cady’s second hit of the day broke open the floodgates for Northwestern. On the very next pitch, Cuchran hit a bomb to deep center field to tie the game at two runs apiece. Zedak made it a trifecta of hits with a long single to right-center field.

The RedHawks were reeling, but not for long. Nelson lined out to third, and Zedak’s lead was too long for her to return to first in time. Spaid then flashed her defensive prowess, gobbling up a grounder from Nader to get the third out of the inning.

Boyd got the first two outs of the fourth, but her day ended after giving up a walk. In her 3.2 innings of work, she gave up just three hits and struck out nine batters, tying a career high.

Danielle Williams, who earned the win the day before against Kentucky in six innings of work, replaced Boyd. She almost surrendered a home run to Miami’s Maddi Banks, but Zedak caught the deep fly at the warning track for the third out.

With the score knotted at 2-2 in the fifth, Shellmyer knocked a single into center field. Jordyn Rudd then earned a single of her own into right, and Shellmyer came around from second to score and take the lead.

In the bottom of the inning, Miami responded quickly. With Cummins on base, Blaska gave Williams a blast, taking a pitch deep to center field for a two-run home run. The shot returned the lead to the RedHawks, 4-3.

In the sixth, two Wildcat walks surrounding a fielder’s choice put two on with one out. Nader, who had been cheered for her defense all afternoon, had a chance to tie the game. Her grounder to second was easily playable for the out, but that wasn't the important result.

The significant part was Angela Zedak sprinting around third as the throw was going to first. Zedak was able to score standing up from second — on a ball that never left the infield! — to tie the game at 4-4. In a regional championship game, the senior from Chicago made a championship play. The inning ended soon after, but the ‘Cats got what they came for: a run.

In the bottom of the inning, Adriana Barlow hit a two-out single for the RedHawks. Despite the seeming danger, Williams had no trouble at all. She notched her second strikeout of the inning to keep the game tied at 4-4 for the seventh inning.

Shellmyer started the seventh with her second straight single. That was immediately followed by a Robinson sacrifice groundout pushing Shellmyer into scoring position. Rudd was up next, with a chance to give Northwestern the lead.

She ripped one to center field, and while the ball was playable, it bounced off the glove of the Miami center fielder. By the time the ball returned to the infield, Rudd was standing on second, and Shellmyer had crossed home plate. The Wildcats led 5-4, though it stayed there heading into the final frame.

Things got dark quickly in the ensuing half-inning. After an extremely controversial walk call, an error in the infield pushed the runners to first and second. Cummins, who earned the free pass, ran to third on the error, and the throw to Cady was wide. By the time the dust cleared, Miami had runners on second and third with no outs.

Rather than give Spaid the chance to decide the game with one swing, Williams intentionally walked her. That meant the RedHawks’ Riley Coyne had the bases loaded with no outs, and a chance to win the game. Williams sat her down with strikeout number five on the day.

Kobayashi came in to pinch hit and grounded out to Cuchran at first, who threw home to Rudd. Rudd managed to take Cummins just before Cummins touched home plate, resulting in a seemingly game-ending double play.

However, upon review the umpires realized Cuchran never stepped on first. The RedHawks would remain alive, with two outs and the bases loaded. Miami had one final out for its season to continue, with pinch-hitter Shelby Kunkel at the plate.

Kunkel quickly went down 0-2, meaning the season was down to not just one out, but one strike. That strike was delivered by Williams for her sixth strikeout of the game. Northwestern survived, 5-4, and sealed its title as Evanston Regional Champions. The Wildcats advanced to the Super Regionals for the second straight year, set to take on the Alabama Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa.

The best-of-three series will either start on Thursday or Friday. The game time is yet to be announced.