The lone run Danielle Williams surrendered during her 122-pitch complete game came on a dribbler, with a runner on first base and two outs in the fourth inning. The play managed to combine a Bill Buckner-esque mistake from Nikki Cuchran — who entered the game with a fielding percentage of .994 — with a mental lapse that allowed Jordan Stephens to score all the way from first and cut Alabama’s deficit to two runs.
It was a pairing of the most improbable of circumstances. With the way the Tuscaloosa crowd came alive for what seemed like the first time all night, one might have had the urge to expand that combination.
Maybe, just maybe, would the Cardiac ‘Cats be the ones with their hearts broken?
Williams answered that question with a resounding no. While she was unquestionably the best player on the diamond on Friday night, she didn’t win the game with overpowering dominance. The grad student won it with a firm resilience that continues to cement itself game after game, and postseason after postseason.
“She’s tough, and she’s just so steady,” Kate Drohan said after the game. “We saw that a few times where the crowd really got into it, they hit some traffic, and she was just steady and had a lot of confidence spinning the ball through the zone.”
Even as Williams’ pitch count ballooned during long at-bats to strand Crimson Tide runners early on, that confidence grew. For every Houdini escape act she pulled, her dazzling changeup seemed to freeze hitters with more effectiveness. It was only fitting that she followed up that fourth-inning Bama run by giving up one hit the rest of the game.
The rest of the Wildcats followed suit. Alabama ace Montana Fouts, who hadn’t pitched since May 11 due to a knee injury, returned to the circle in the first inning and retired Northwestern’s first five batters with ease. The former All-American was about to wipe out NU’s heart of the order, which could have reestablished her confidence and set the tone for a silent night.
Then, the ping of Angela Zedak’s bat on her home run to dead center field roared through the dark. She had flipped on the light switch.
It activated Kelsey Nader, who had gone 0-for-7 at the Evanston Regional. Not only did the first-year pick up her first postseason hit, she picked up two of them. The latter came on a fourth-inning RBI single, which ended up bringing in Zedak for the final run of the game. It was the knockout punch that forced Fouts to exit after just 3.1 innings.
Nader had outlasted a graduate student ace, who had even more postseason experience than Northwestern’s battle-tested core. Fouts is someone who threw a perfect game in 2021 against the same UCLA team that eliminated the ‘Cats last season. Yet, Nader’s lack of experience didn’t lessen her chances of smacking the clutch hit. Her connection with her peers set her up to succeed when they needed her most.
“I just lean on my teammates,” Nader said. “They have been such a rock for me all season, in postseason especially. Just communicating with them, looking at them and knowing as a team we can do whatever we set our minds to.”
The perseverance Nader and Williams displayed in Game One was evident from the grad students down to the first-years. It speaks to how much the interdependence Nader touched on drives the team. To take command of the series on the road and against an Alabama team that Northwestern arguably should have been seeded above is an incredibly challenging mental task. It’s one that doesn’t get accomplished without constant reliance on others.
While this win wasn’t anywhere near as thrilling as last year’s Game One Super Regional win at Arizona State, it once again demonstrated the 2023 Wildcats have adopted many of the 2022 team’s qualities. As it did in Tempe, Northwestern managed to work out of nearly every jam it needed to while not wasting the slivers of offensive opportunities that presented themselves.
Whether it’s Williams or Lauren Boyd who steps into the circle on Saturday night, it’s clear that a few jams won’t keep them from gaining steam; rather, they can help the pitchers gain more. For every runner they strand, and for every full count the hitters work, the entire team develops more confidence.
The Wildcats are now one win away from earning their return ticket to Oklahoma City. It’ll be anything but easy, but if Friday night showed anything, that might bode better for Northwestern than anyone.