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Channeling the past: Reliving Northwestern softball’s miraculous Tempe Super Regional series

Let this three-game stretch serve as your reminder: No team is every truly out of the game in college softball.

Zac BonDurant/Northwestern Athletics

Just under a year ago, after 26 innings of softball, one four-hour game and two comeback wins, Northwestern beat Arizona State in the Tempe Super Regional. It was a three-game series marked by Danielle Williams’ dominance and temperatures over 100 degrees.

In their 2022 playoff run, the ‘Cats were the No. 9-ranked team in the nation. ASU was No. 8. Now, as NU jets off to Tuscaloosa to take on Alabama, its underdog status looms larger and its odds grimmer. This year, No. 12 Northwestern enters the Super Regional with a seven-seed disparity separating it from the No. 5-ranked Crimson Tide.

In the face of even more adversity, it’s worth recalling some of the highlights of that fateful Tempe Super Regional, which propelled coach Kate Drohan’s squad to the Women’s College World Series. The series against the Sun Devils should serve as a reminder to Drohan’s unit that no game is unwinnable, even against a top-five team in the nation, like Alabama. After all, Williams is still on the mound, and the ‘Cats have lost just one game in the last month. So, without further ado, let’s take a walk down memory lane, shall we?

Blistering heat and an 11-inning game welcomed the ‘Cats to Tempe

In what was presumably its hottest game of the year, NU not only had to battle a feisty ASU team but also scorching weather that had players melting inside their purple jerseys. Somehow, Williams managed to stay in the circle all 11 frames, a feat in and of itself — before factoring in the impressiveness of doing so with the sun beating down on her. For reference, ASU exhausted four pitchers on the day.

Northwestern and Arizona State got off to a slow start, as Williams and Sun Devil pitcher Morgan Mac kept opposing hitters scoreless through the first three innings. The carnage hit in the fourth and fifth innings, when Williams surrendered three one-run homers in a six-out span.

Amazingly, NU kept its cool, getting two back in the sixth, courtesy of a two-run bomb from Rachel Lewis. Still, it wasn’t until Northwestern was down to its last two outs that the dramatics hit.

On a 1-1 count, Hannah Cady sent a moonshot over the center field wall. The third baseman sprinted around the bases, stomped on home plate and was quickly engulfed in a sea of purple jerseys. There are too many parts to focus on in this one — Cady gawking at her own wizardry as she rounded the bases, the multiple members of the ASU dugout throwing their hands on their heads as the ball left her bat, the Sun Devil players on the field hanging their heads in disbelief… Perfection.

Credit to Arizona State, though. In the bottom of the seventh, ASU loaded the bases, and in a situation every kid dreams of — a 2-2 count with two outs and the winning run 60 feet away — the Sun Devil hitter couldn’t convert. Instead, Williams juggled a ground ball hit straight at her before throwing her out at first.

Williams went on to pitch a clean four innings of extras, as she waited for her teammates to notch one more run.

She got her wish when Angela Zedak hit a bullet to the ASU shortstop, who opted for the easy out at first instead of the runner coming home. Maeve Nelson scored, and that was all she wrote for Game One, as the ‘Cats nabbed the win, 4-3.

‘Cats, Sun Devils go to another set of extras; this time, Williams wasn’t the hero

One thing is for certain: Northwestern and Arizona State make for great television. In a game that was back-and-forth the entire time, it was ASU that got the last laugh.

In another game that lasted over three hours, the teams traded shots like heavyweight boxers in a grudge match. The Sun Devils opened up scoring in the first inning, earning a run off a Jazmine Hill double.

Hill became an interesting storyline in the series, as she was the one who grounded out to Williams in Game One in the bottom of the seventh with the bases loaded. With a chip on her shoulder, she put Arizona State on her back in a must-win contest for the maroon and gold.

It didn’t take long for Northwestern to answer, though, as an ASU error led to Nelson scoring another unearned run. But, the ‘Cats couldn’t convert on the set of loaded bases that followed, leading to a stressed sigh from the fans in the crowd decked in purple.

The fifth inning is where things got intriguing. In the top of the frame, none other than Hill hit a three-run shot for what seemed like a game-clinching home run. Her celebration around the bases was a bit more tame than Cady’s from the game before, but not by much.

Still, sticking to the theme of the series, the ‘Cats staged a comeback that was a little less explosive. Tacking on hit after hit in the bottom of the inning — first driving in Lewis off a double and then bringing home Ayana Lindsey thanks to a single — the team managed to cut the deficit to one, 4-3.

Then, as Arizona State stood just one out away from evening the series in regular play, Maeve Nelson smashed a fly ball to center field that… Drumroll, please… Hill misjudged and let bounce off the wall. Jordyn Rudd scored, evening the game at 4-4.

The comeback was for not, as the Sun Devils kept their composure, adding on three runs at their next plate appearance. NU, hitting in the bottom of the frame, couldn’t convert to tie it again and went back to the team hotel with the 7-4 loss.

Winners want the ball, and Williams shouted for it

What a more fitting way to end such a back-and-forth series than with a one-run game heading into the seventh. Spoiler alert: this one actually managed to avoid extras.

Williams threw her second complete game of the series, tallying 130 pitches and allowing only six hits in seven innings of work. She struck out seven and walked five. But unlucky timing on base runners and a couple of home runs had her working from a deficit early on.

It was 5-0 heading into the fourth inning. To the average spectator, the ‘Cats’ season was as close to over as possible. Unfortunately for the average spectator, they are unaware that Northwestern softball invented the term, “Cardiac ‘Cats.”

In the fourth frame, NU scored two on a fielder’s choice-turned-error. Then, a Rudd single knocked in two more. Just like that, in the span of three outs, it was back to a one run game. And to the chagrin of the Arizona State batters, Williams was done playing around. The fourth-year pitcher didn’t allow a single run between the third inning and the sixth.

Northwestern knocked in at least one run in each of the final three innings: one in the fifth, one in the sixth and two in the seventh. Rudd and Nelson led the charge, as the catcher connected on four at-bats while the shortstop reached base on three hits.

In a game that mandated clutch and composed play, the ‘Cats’ senior staff stepped up. Williams did Williams things, and the catalog of hitters on NU’s squad never stopped swinging, even when confronted with a 5-0 deficit.

Northwestern won the game on a relatively chill note, allowing just one run in the seventh. The final score was 8-6, with advancing Williams and Co. to the WCWS.