Regular season titles are nice, but the ‘Cats’ season starts now.
The Big Ten Tournament is upon us with games starting on the morning of Wednesday, May 10 at Eichelberger Field in Champaign, Illinois.
Although NU has dominated its conference opponents this season, standing with an 18-2 record against it, some old foes could give the Wildcats some trouble when the stakes get higher. Here are the teams most likely to give Northwestern a run for its money.
Danielle Williams has been the best pitcher on this Northwestern staff for most of this season, but that has come with a few blowup starts along the way. Her biggest was a six-inning, seven-run outing versus Minnesota in March, but she still struck out eight, and Northwestern walked it off for the win. Her second-worst outing? Four innings of five-run, five-walk softball at Iowa.
Despite their 10-10 record, the Hawkeyes boast one of the Big Ten’s best pitching staffs, which held the ‘Cats to just five runs in two out of their three matchups. Their 2.45 team ERA is the fifth best in the conference, and they hold opposing batters to a .238 average against them.
In addition, they have Nia Carter leading the offense, who leads the Big Ten with a .481 batting average. She struggled in her three games against Northwestern, going 1-for-9 with three walks, but she has torched the rest of the conference and has plenty of help in the lineup with Tatianna Roman and Tory Bennett hitting behind her.
The ‘Cats may have taken two of three from the Hawkeyes in the regular season, but a lot has changed in the month since they last faced each other. NU’s pitching staff will have to work hard to hold the Iowa offense to just a few runs.
The Wolverines handed the Wildcats their worst loss of conference play: a 15-0 blowout that was run-ruled in the fifth inning. The ‘Cats were held to a paltry 2.3 runs per game throughout their three-game series which not only included that blowout defeat, but also two hard-fought wins: a 4-3 11-inning squeaker, and a 3-0 win on getaway day where the offense was dormant until the seventh inning.
Michigan, like the Hawkeyes, has a 10-10 record in conference play, but its pitching staff strikes out more batters than every Big Ten team aside from Minnesota. The team’s ace, Lauren Derkowski, is sixth in the Big Ten with a 1.93 ERA and second in strikeouts, and she shut out the ‘Cats for six innings on April 23 before giving up three runs in the seventh.
The Wolverines aren’t the biggest threats at the plate, but on-base standout Lexie Blair and slugger Keke Tholl could give the ‘Cats staff some trouble. The Wildcats have handled Michigan in the recent past, but anything can happen in a one-game showdown.
It seems silly to say that a team the ‘Cats swept just last weekend will give them a hard time next week, but the reigning Big Ten Tournament champions will not go down without a fight. Despite the sweep, Northwestern looked vulnerable at many points throughout the weekend, and Nebraska could exploit those in a win-or-go-home game.
The ‘Cats blew the Cornhuskers out of the water in their Friday matchup, but Saturday was a different story. Nebraska led from the fourth through the seventh innings, and hurlers Sarah Harness and Courtney Wallace were making the lineup look silly. The Wildcats took advantage of Wallace’s fatigue in the seventh and ninth , with Kansas Robinson touching her up with a walk-off dinger to take it.
Sunday was a similar story. Cami Henry had one of her worst starts of the season and was pulled in the third after giving Nebraska a lead the Huskers would not relinquish until the fifth inning. But again, Northwestern staged a late comeback against a gassed Wallace to secure the sweep.
The Wildcats were able to benefit from seeing the same two Nebraska pitchers for all but 1.2 innings all series; the Huskers had no choice but to bring out Wallace and Harness regardless of how much damage the ‘Cats had done against them previously. But this is a team that has excelled in Big Ten play, with a 12-5 record against teams that don’t play in Evanston. If anyone upsets the Wildcats, it may be this Cornhusker squad.