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Losing the Super Regional stings because Northwestern’s super seniors made excellence the expectation

Yes, the loss hurts. But don’t lose sight of why it hurts.


A season-ending loss like this stings enough to the point where it blinds. So, let’s regain some sight: how’d Northwestern end up here?

The Wildcats got here fresh off a 2022 run to the Women’s College World Series — their first in 15 years. Just when things seemed like they couldn’t get any better for the program, five seniors from that team — Nikki Cuchran, Danielle Williams, Skyler Shellmyer, Jordyn Rudd and Maeve Nelson — all announced their intention to return for the 2023 season.

They intended to come back to Oklahoma City stronger. They were determined to build on the immense success they enjoyed. And most of all, they were intent on solidifying Northwestern’s leap from Midwestern feel-good story to national powerhouse.

They ran through the Big Ten like a buzzsaw and ripped off a ridiculous 31-3 run heading into Tuscaloosa, collecting the long-elusive Big Ten Tournament title along the way. They never lost their trademark flair for the dramatic.

They embarked on a run so dominant that their Super Regional loss to No. 5 Alabama on the road as a No. 12 seed — in a series that went the distance — feels like an upset. Because of that, it’s natural to turn to what went wrong in the final two games, after Northwestern took a 1-0 lead.

The ‘Cats went 1-for-15 with runners in scoring position, and plated just three runs despite combining for 14 hits in Games Two and Three. The lineup that seemingly always found a way to erupt at the right time, even when it battled inconsistency, fizzled out twice in a row. Williams had to be perfect on Sunday to win the series, and while she came about as close as a person who threw 167 pitches in the prior 48 hours can get, she was human. It took one mistake — a fifth-inning pitch that Jenna Johnson clanged off the left foul pole — to make a one-run deficit feel like a two-run chasm.

The way the series had gone, where every run seemed to carry the weight of a soccer goal, Johnson’s home run appeared to decide the game the second she hit it. Ultimately, it did, but Northwestern refused to let that moment define its postseason.

Instead, the Cardiac ‘Cats went out kicking and screaming, roaring their hearts out as loud as the ball echoed off Nelson’s bat in the seventh inning. Just when everything pointed toward the careers of Northwestern’s super-senior quintet ending quietly, Nelson’s home run set the stage for a final act that made Alabama sweat until the very moment Montana Fouts drew the curtain.

In a similar vein, once Fouts struck out Hannah Cady and the Tide flooded the circle, it was Nelson who appeared to lead Northwestern’s postgame huddle, as the ESPNU cameras showed. Eliminated moments before, multiple ‘Cats were on the verge of tears entering that group, but that didn’t stop the shortstop from getting the players together and counting them off with fervor.

Williams, who got through two scoreless innings just to encounter a 62-minute weather delay while Fouts hadn’t even warmed up yet, powered through to finish all six innings and surrender just five hits despite that huge disadvantage.

Those displays of leadership and a never-say-die attitude have come to define the super seniors, and Northwestern softball. They flew under the radar on Sunday because all five grad students have made them footnotes of the program’s expectation, rather than chapters of its feel-good story.

Excluding the COVID-shortened 2020 season, the quintet has won 164 of its 221 games. In 2019, it earned Northwestern’s first Super Regional appearance in over a decade. And it will cap off its time in Evanston with three trips to the final 16 in four full seasons, which is one of the best runs in program history.

The five grad students have helped raise the bar so high that falling one run short of securing a second consecutive Women’s College World Series appearance as the lower seed in the Super Regional — something Northwestern hasn’t ever done in its 47 seasons of existence — feels somewhat disappointing.

But, it’s crystal clear that their legacy is going to last. Shades of their resilience shone when first-year Kelsey Nader blooped a two-out RBI single off Fouts, a graduate student and former All-American, to cut Alabama’s 2-0 lead in half. Northwestern had struggled with runners in scoring position throughout the entire series, yet it was Nader who pulled through for the second time in three games.

Just as Shellmyer, Rudd, Williams, Nelson and Cuchran had three full seasons to learn from and avenge their Super Regional goose egg against No. 1 Oklahoma in 2019, Nader will have at least three years of her own. As will Kansas Robinson, who was one of the team’s best hitters during the regular season.

So ultimately, having two chances to punch a ticket back to OKC and whiffing on both of them is devastating. Even against a great Alabama team that now has three Women’s College World Series appearances under its belt in the past five years, it hurts to know the team didn’t capitalize on its veteran presence and will now likely lose five of its key starters. However, that pain shouldn’t obscure how significantly those super seniors have changed the program forever.