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Northwestern softball post-mortem 2023: A special group as told by an anthology of stats

Who said numbers can’t be emotional?

Ryan Kuttler | Northwestern Athletics

A few days removed from Northwestern’s crushing super regional loss to Alabama, it’s time to dot the “i”s and cross the “t”s on this season of Northwestern softball and officially file it into the record books.

Diamond sports tend to be a numbers game. More than football, basketball or soccer, softball is comprised of individual matchups and analytic trends. For that reason (and because a more traditional post-mortem would just turn into a 2,000 word rambling rant about how much I adore this team), let’s use numbers to tell the story of the 2023 Northwestern Wildcats:

14-0: The Wildcats’ record at Sharon J. Drysdale Field

Perhaps my favorite stat of the year, Northwestern finished the year with a shining 14 wins and zero losses at home. Nothing speaks more to the cohesion between the players and the fans. And, oh man, the vibes were spectacular. It was a rarity to go an entire game without seeing a stunning play in the field or a dance in the team dugout. The team always made sure fans got their money’s worth.

4-6: The Wildcats’ record through the first ten games of the season

Things were not always bright and cheery for Northwestern. In February, the ‘Cats suffered disappointing losses at the hands of Missouri, Tennessee, Clemson (twice), Oregon and UCLA. After a deep postseason run the year prior, it was fair to wonder if the Wildcats were about to regress in a major way. However, the ‘Cats went on a torrent run, going 37-5 in their next 42 games to make it all the way to Tuscaloosa.

10: The Wildcats’ midseason win streak

Speaking of wins, after a close 2-1 loss to No. 1 Oklahoma in the middle of March, Northwestern rattled off 10 consecutive victories against Weber State, No. 19 Auburn, UIC, Minnesota, DePaul and Iowa. If not for a narrow 6-5 loss to the Hawkeyes in the final game of the series, that streak would have reached 20 as the team followed up the 10-game stretch with another streak, this one reaching nine straight triumphs.

24: The new program record for runs in a single game

April 8 was a normal Saturday. Other than it being “National Empanada Day” and “Draw a Picture of a Bird Day” (both true, look it up), there was not too much to report. That was until Northwestern’s offense exploded for a 24-run detonation against Penn State. In only four innings of offense, the ‘Cats tallied 18 hits against the Nittany Lions to capture an eye-popping 24-6 run rule victory. A few bonus statistics from that game:

  • 11: the number of runs the ‘Cats scored in the second inning
  • 10: the number of runs the ‘Cats scored in the third inning (just demoralizing)
  • 29: the number of total baserunners the ‘Cats had across four innings
  • 18: the number of Northwestern RBIs with two outs
  • .615: the ‘Cats’ batting average with runners on base

How are those numbers even real? Just silly stuff.

15: The number of years since Northwestern’s last Big Ten Tournament Win

With successive victories against Iowa, Nebraska and Indiana, Northwestern captured its first win in the conference tournament since 2008, and that was only the beginning.

5: The number of times Kate Drohan has won Big Ten Coach of the Year

Kate Drohan is really dang good at her job. After clinching the Big Ten regular season title and conference tournament, Drohan was named the Big Ten Coach of the Year for a fifth time and second consecutive year. Her prowess was on full display at the Evanston Regional, making several nifty decisions to give the ‘Cats the edge and advance with a 3-0 record. All season long, Drohan put players in positions to succeed, and that is only the tip of the iceberg. Her bold decision-making, leadership skills and culture building have made Northwestern one of the premier softball programs in the country.

12: The number of home runs Angela Zedak hit this season

One of the biggest reasons Northwestern was able to return to the tournament after the departure of Rachel Lewis was the jump in play from the senior left fielder. Zedak bumped her average from .240 to .315 and was the main source of power in the ‘Cats’ lineup, delivering a team-leading dozen blasts on the year, including one in the first game of the series against Alabama.

0: The number of college games Kansas Robinson and Kelsey Nader started before this season

A major revelation for Northwestern was the play of two first-years who became everyday starters down the stretch. In the regular season, Robinson led the ‘Cats in OPS and delivered three memorable home runs (including two in the same inning) during the Evanston Regional. Nader started 48 games in right field and was stellar defensively while also producing a .312 average and four hits in the Super Regional series.

18: The number of non-Danielle Williams wins the ‘Cats got from the circle

A year ago, the Wildcats played Danielle Williams till the wheels fell off. This year, it was a different story. This season, Cami Henry and Lauren Boyd were crucial for Northwestern, pitching over 170 combined innings to take some of the burden off Williams’ shoulders. And the pair did more than eat innings. Henry finished the year with a 3.45 ERA, and Boyd pitched 103 innings with a 2.24 ERA, including several key frames of postseason play.

.420: Nikki Cuchran’s batting average in Big Ten play

After a slow start to the season in non-conference play, Cuchran’s batting average — though it does not tell the full story — sat at a measly .203. After 23 games of conference play, Cuchran raked her way above .300, putting together a truly white-hot stretch of offense to earn First Team All-Big Ten honors for the second time in her career.

6: The number of runs Northwestern scored, and gave up, against Alabama across three games in the Super Regional Round

It’s a heart-crushing way to see the season end, but sometimes it’s just how the cookie crumbles. Across three games, the Wildcats and Crimson Tide finished knotted at six runs apiece. Unfortunately, Alabama was able to win in the margins, getting crucial clutch hits in timely situations despite being outhit in all three games of the series. Ultimately, Jaala Torrence and Montana Fouts did just enough to keep the ‘Cats’ offense quiet and earn a trip to Oklahoma City.

210 (probably?): My estimate of how many feet Maeve Nelson’s home run traveled in the final at-bat of her career

The year finished on a sour note, but that should not take away from one of the most clutch pieces of hitting I’ve ever had the pleasure of witnessing in person. Trailing 3-1 with only two outs to save the season, Nelson took a Montana Fouts pitch to the heavens, cutting the lead to one. The ‘Cats weren’t able to complete the comeback, but nothing better represents the amount of resilience and fight these Cardiac ‘Cats displayed all season long.

5th: Where Skyler Shellmyer sits on the Northwestern all-time runs scored leaderboard

The fifth-year senior was stellar for Northwestern all year long, leading the team in batting average and holding down center field and the leadoff spot in the order. Shellmyer paced all Northwestern players in hits and stolen bases and provided irreplaceable veteran leadership to the squad.

201: The number of career RBIs Jordyn Rudd finishes with

There are tons of numbers I could’ve used to boast Rudd’s excellence. She’s made four All-Big Ten Teams, and in 2023 led the team in OPS (1.007), RBIs (47), on-base percentage (.439) and total bases (96). She was once again one of the best defensive catchers in the nation while doubling as one of the Big Ten’s best hitters. The 201 RBIs make Rudd only the second player in Northwestern history to eclipse that 200 mark, joining Garland Cooper as Wildcat royalty.

106: The number of wins Danielle Williams finished with in her illustrious career

That’s a lot of wins. More than anyone else has ever recorded in a purple and white uniform. Danielle Williams has been such a staple of this program, making it nearly impossible to imagine it without her. Four times, she was named First Team All-Big Ten, and the 2022 Unanimous Big Ten Pitcher of the Year and 2019 National Freshman of the Year threw a whopping 866 innings for the ‘Cats. She fought to the bitter end, delivering a complete game gem in Game One of the Tuscaloosa Super Regional and solid performances in Games Two and Three to keep Northwestern within striking distance. No. 24 will be enshrined some day as one of the best to ever do it in Northwestern history.

0: The percent chance that I, or any ‘Cats fans will forget this amazing season

This one goes without saying. What a special season to watch.