Garland Cooper Tsarouchas remembers when Northwestern clinched its last back-to-back Women’s College World Series berth.
“I was playing first and Eileen [Canney Linnehan] was pitching,” she said. “The last out and that hug, that moment with her. I totally remember that, very vividly.”
As this year’s Wildcats gear up for Super Regional weekend in Tuscaloosa, they’ll look to experience the same embraces and excitement that Tsarouchas and the rest of her NU teammates did back in 2007, when they took down South Carolina to book their ticket to Oklahoma City for a second consecutive year. To do so, they’ll need to tap into some of their strongest traits, which their head coach, Kate Drohan, who has helmed the Northwestern program since 2002, says they share with the team she coached 16 years ago.
“That team had a lot of continuity from one year to the next, and I feel that way about last and this year’s teams,” Drohan said. “Both groups have great depth on the mound, both groups loved the weight room. They took such pride in their work ethic in the weight room, and that led to our physicality, it led to our resiliency… Their personalities are very similar; they’re risk takers. And they love playing on the biggest stages.”
Having reached the WCWS a year prior — falling to Arizona in the championship series — and with a number of their key performers from a year prior returning, including Tsarouchas, the two-time reigning Big Ten Player of the Year; Linnehan, the incumbent Big Ten Pitcher of the Year; and Tammy Williams, the defending Big Ten Freshman of the Year, the Northwestern Wildcats had every reason to generate nationwide hype entering the season.
They were, objectively speaking, somewhat of a juggernaut. And they knew it.
“In 2006, I remember specific games realizing, ‘Oh we’re really good; this is the level we’re playing at, this is what we’re gonna do,” Williams said. “In 2007, we already knew what we needed to do. It was just a matter of getting there.”
But Linnehan said that NU didn’t get the attention it would have if it was one of college softball’s brand names.
“In 2007 people knew about us,” Linnehan said, “but there still wasn’t as much of a buzz as maybe for some other schools just because of the historical reputation and consistency.”
What the world didn’t know, of course, was what Linnehan and her teammates had already decided for themselves.
“We had our minds made up that we were going to do it,” she said, referencing the team’s determination to return to Oklahoma City.
That resolve was apparent throughout a dominant regular season, during which NU won 43 games, a program record that still stands. The individuals that had propelled the Wildcats to success in 2006 continued to shine through as they pursued their collective goal. Tsarouchas and Linnehan repeated as Big Ten Player and Pitcher of the Year, respectively, while Williams earned First Team All-American recognition.
Still, the season was not without its difficult moments. Despite losing just three times in conference play, Northwestern did not repeat as Big Ten regular season champions, falling a game short of Ohio State. The frustration mounted when the Wildcats lost 2-1 to the Buckeyes in the Big Ten tournament final, and doubt began to seep in ahead of the NCAA Tournament that had been their North Star all season long.
“It got to the point where I would think, ‘Oh my gosh, what if we don’t do it again?’” said Linnehan, who was a senior and knew the end of the season was synonymous with the end of her college career. “‘What if we don’t get there again?’”
In that moment, Linnehan said the group’s togetherness got them through. “It was like, ‘No, we’re doing this,” she said. “We’re going to stop at nothing to get there and to protect each other and make sure that we’re comfortable in that journey.’”
“Our team had no business playing with some of the teams that we played with a lot of the time on paper,” Tsarouchas said. “But we played without fear, because we played for each other.”
Despite their lack of a regular season conference title and loss to OSU in the conference championship, the Wildcats were seeded second nationally going into the tournament. They proved the legitimacy of their ranking in the Evanston Regional and Super Regional, winning five straight while outscoring their opponents 22-5 to earn their place back in OKC.
“When we did win the Supers, and it was like, ‘We are going back to the [Women’s College] World Series.’ That was a bit of a relief,” said Katie McSheffrey (née Logan), a senior outfielder who received First-Team All-Big Ten recognition in both 2006 and 2007. "But we weren’t done yet.”
While Drohan’s team finished short of the championship series that they had reached a year prior, it still won twice on the sport’s biggest stage, downing Arizona State and Baylor before bowing out to Tennessee in the semifinals. To many on the team, getting there itself was the highlight of the season.
“Stepping off the bus and realizing that I was going to get to play on that field, which so many tremendous women had played on before me, was the coolest feeling I have ever felt, for sure,” said Nicole Pauly Capalbo, who started at second base and, as a first-year, wasn’t on the team a year prior.
“They barely had stands in the outfield when we were there, but it was still just as cool to us,” said Erin Mann (née Dyer) the team’s catcher, “Still big time.”
For a team remembered by its head coach for its work ethic, Williams felt that the return to Oklahoma City was the ultimate payoff.
“It’s really that moment that you work for,” she said. “When it’s 6 a.m. on a Saturday and you’re running sprints, that’s what you’re training for.”
Williams is a familiar face around Sharon J. Drysdale Field these days. Despite the fact the she works and lives in the Indianapolis area, she made her way back to Evanston for last weekend’s regional and sits on the board of directors for Northwestern’s NIL collective, TrueNU.
“I absolutely love the coaching staff. I love the university. I loved my time here,” Williams said. “I think that it is absolutely the best softball program in America, and it gave me so much that I want to give back to the program so that all the athletes today have the same or better opportunities than I did.”
Linnehan, who lives closer to NU than her former shortstop, has also kept NU softball in her life. Last year, when assistant coach Michelle Gascoigne went on maternity leave, she filled in.
“I created these really special connections with them, even though it was only a couple of months,” Linnehan said.
Those relationships have extended into this season, when she’s served as an advisor to several of the team’s contributors, including Jordyn Rudd. The catcher has spoken with both Linnehan and Williams as she and her teammates attempt to become the next generation of ‘Cats to make it to back-to-back Women’s College World Series.
“The biggest thing they’ve said is, ‘You’re not trying to repeat last year, you’re just trying to have a better year than the year before.’” Rudd said. “And I think being able to learn from people who have been through it is so important and so huge for us.”
Whether or not Rudd and company are able to finish their journey back to the Softball Capital of the World, their approach to the game has already struck Williams.
“I am so proud of this group of players,” she said. “They really are truly what Northwestern softball means.”