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Heading to Tuscaloosa, Northwestern’s chances of returning to the WCWS lie with Danielle Williams

Forget Montana Fouts, all eyes will be on No. 24 in purple this weekend.

Danielle Williams pitches in an NCAA Tournament Regional game against Eastern Illinois University on May 19, 2023
Ryan Kuttler/Northwestern Athletics

One year ago, after 23.1 innings and 430 pitches, Danielle Williams had sent the Wildcats to the Women’s College World Series. Fast forward nearly 365 days — in her swan song at the J — the ‘Cats’ ace met the moment once again. She delivered 16.1 innings and 256 pitches over the weekend, and led the ‘Cats to a perfect 3-0 regional round and back to the Super Regional.

“She wanted to win that ballgame for her team,” head coach Kate Drohan said postgame. “To have the kind of poise to simply say I just need to get the better out instead of letting the moment get too big, that’s a sign of a great competitor.”

Williams, like she has done for entire tenure in Evanston, carried Northwestern on her back this weekend. In the opening game of the regional, No. 24 gave a Houdini-like performance, with the ball disappearing right in front of the Eastern Illinois batters. Her changeup was wicked, her curveball was slicing through the zone and as The Boss would say — she blew that speedball by them, made them look like a fool.

The fifth-year racked up 10 strikeouts on the day and retired 15 straight hitters to end the game. Although NU’s offense was unable to get much going throughout the contest, the outcome never really seemed in doubt. Williams controlled the Panthers from her first pitch to her 89th and helped the Wildcats cruise to the first victory of the regional.

If her first performance was not impressive enough, I would argue that Game Two was Williams’ best outing of the weekend. Despite not getting the start on Saturday, No. 24 entered the game much quicker than expected. Lauren Boyd lasted only one inning, surrendering three runs before being pulled from the contest.

It was quite clear that Williams was not prepared to relieve Boyd so early in the day, as the grad student found herself in hot water in a hurry. In her first inning of relief, things did not start well. She allowed a three-run moonshot that expanded Northwestern’s deficit to four; however, Williams shut down Kentucky for the rest of the game. She retired 11 batters in a row before giving up a solo home run with one out remaining in the game. Still, she slammed the door shut to hold on to a NU victory, 10-8.

It is not easy to come into a game in relief, but to enter way earlier than expected is even more difficult. With the their backs against the wall, the ‘Cats turned the ball over to their ace, and she willed them to victory. Despite the rough beginning, Williams was able to buckle down and push through six innings. That is the sign of not only a great competitor, but a leader on the diamond. It did not matter that she had thrown 90 pitches the day before, the fifth-year wanted the game in her glove. The long bomb in the second did not deter or deflate No. 24; instead, she put her head down and went to work in the circle. It is this same mindset that she carries every game, and it was even more apparent in Sunday’s matchup.

In the regional final, Williams had what was arguably her most gutsy performance of the season. Clinging onto a one run lead, Williams entered the circle three outs away from closing out Miami (OH) and sending the ‘Cats to Tuscaloosa; however, slamming the door shut would not be as easy as NU hoped.

A questionable ball four — followed by a base hit and an errant throw — set the RedHawks up with two runners in scoring position with no outs, and an intentional walk loaded the bases. No outs, nowhere to put the batter — no problem for No. 24. Williams did not let the magnitude of the situation faze her; instead, she showed why she is a four-time First Team All-Big Ten honoree.

She caught Riley Coyne whiffing on a changeup for the first out and forced a soft grounder to first that Nikki Cuchran fired home to barely get the force-out at the plate. With the bases still loaded, and only one out left, Williams reached deep into her arsenal and did what she does better than most in the nation — send teams packing. The fifth-year fired a filthy curveball for the game-ending strikeout to win the region.

In the biggest moment of the season, one where everything was not going her way, No. 24 did not flinch. She took a batter-by-batter approach and used her catalog of pitches to get the job done. There was zero room for error for the Californian, and she exceeded what the Wildcats could’ve asked for. Although they are known as the Cardiac ‘Cats — and that seventh inning definitely made my heart rate increase — there was a sense of calmness inside the J. No one knew how, but everyone knew that No. 24 would escape the jam. Not to be forgotten, Williams was over 250 pitches deep on the weekend by this point, but there were no signs of fatigue.

“Danielle just takes it to another level,” Drohan said. “We have a lot of faith in her ability.”

After Northwestern’s opening weekend way back in mid-February, I wrote that the ‘Cats would only go as far as Williams took them. Nearly four months later, the unanimous 2022 Big Ten Pitcher of the Year has done just that. When Northwestern steps into Rhoads Stadium to take on No. 5-seed Alabama, No. 24 will have the ball in her glove and will have the difficult task of punching NU’s ticket back to the Women’s College World Series. Will she throw 430 pitches again? Only time will tell.

One thing is for certain. Danielle Williams is at the top of her game, and she will likely be reason 1A why the Wildcats return to Oklahoma City.