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To Northwestern softball’s super seniors: A tribute

As the five super seniors say goodbye to NU, it is time to give them their flowers.

Northwestern Athletics/John Konstantaras

After half a decade and over 1,100 combined games, the curtain has finally closed.

For Northwestern’s five super seniors, last Sunday’s loss to Alabama was the last time that they would ever wear purple and white. It was a moment that everyone knew was coming, yet no one wanted to admit it. It’s difficult to think of Northwestern softball without Danielle Williams, Jordyn Rudd, Maeve Nelson, Nikki Cuchran and Skyler Shellmyer. It is also hard to put into words what the Class of 2018 means to the program, but as the five pillars of this era of NU softball say goodbye to the J and Evanston, their legacy is forever ingrained into history.

“We were so real with each other and so vulnerable,” head coach Kate Drohan told Inside NU. ”This group gave everyone permission to be themselves. I‘ve said this a lot that it was a real honor to coach his team, but they inspire me in a lot of ways too.”

During their time in Evanston, these five super seniors were at the forefront of the ‘Cats’ success since they stepped foot on campus. Before they arrived, Northwestern had not made a Super Regional or won the Big Ten Tournament since 2008, and had not reached the Women’s College World Series since falling short in the semifinals in 2007.

However, all that would change with this class. The four position players missed nine games combined in their half-decade in Evanston. They were always on the field, and always making plays. The five fifth-years racked up 14 All-Big Ten honors and numerous other accolades during their illustrious careers. The group captured two Big Ten regular season titles, the Wildcats’ first Big Ten Tournament championship in 15 years, an NCAA Tournament birth every year (COVID cancellation year excluded), three Super Regional appearances and one trip to Oklahoma City.

For this group, it wasn’t a surprise that they were this good; it was expected. These accomplishments cemented Northwestern as one of the top programs in the nation — a culture of excellence has been set.

“We’re fortunate enough to get [the fifth-years] a lot of opportunities early in their playing career, and they really became the backbone of our team,” Drohan said. “Their love for each other grew their relationship with the game.”

For as good as they were on the field, they were even better off it. As the group got older, they slid right into leadership positions on this squad and took the reins. They were always helping their younger teammates with softball or just life, and in times of trouble, those five knew how to rally the troops. They were epitome of the phrase “it doesn’t matter, get better,” constantly putting their head down and going to work. It did not matter if they were scorching hot or ice cold because the group never got dejected. They showed up every day and did whatever was asked of them, setting an example and tone for the entire program.

“When those moments got hard, they really leaned on each other,” Drohan said. “I was able to coach them in a very direct very real way. I would tell them ‘this is what the game is going to ask of you right now, and this is this is what I really believe you’re capable of doing, and you’ve got to believe it too.’”

For as much as it takes a group to build a program, each of these five players deserves their own flowers.

I have had the privilege to cover a lot of great pitchers at two different schools over the past two years, but Danielle Williams is by far the best I’ve ever seen. I could write 1,500 words alone about how filthy her changeup is, yet alone all of her accolades while at NU. In her time in the circle, No. 24 was not only the best pitcher for the Wildcats, but was a household name in this era of college softball.

Watching Williams and Montana Fouts, pitchers 1A and 1B in the nation for the last half-decade, duel it out last weekend in Tuscaloosa was special. I’ve never seen anyone as dominant as Williams, who made hitters look silly time and time again in the batter’s box. The talent of Northwestern’s all-time leader in wins could not be denied as soon as she stepped foot on campus.

In her first year in Evanston, No. 24 put up astronomical numbers. In 44 appearances, Williams had a 1.55 ERA, threw 26 complete games, including 13 shutouts and struck out 317 batters. Just for good measure, she added three homers and 21 RBIs at the dish. Williams’ performance was so immaculate that she earned First Team All-Big Ten honors, Big Ten Freshman of the Year and was named NFCA National Freshman of the Year — the first in Big Ten history.

For the next four years, it did not matter the situation. If No. 24 had the ball, ‘Cats fans could feel at ease. Williams put the Wildcats on her back and willed them to success. Her 251-inning, 330-strikeout season in 2022 led Northwestern back to the WCWS for the first time in 15 years. Coach Drohan would give the ball to her ace, and Williams would do the rest. Nothing fazed No. 24, because no matter how tense the situation and no matter how well she was performing in the circle, you could count on her to smile and flash a peace sign to wherever the camera was. It was obvious how much everyone around her loved playing behind her. As much as I will miss my jaw-dropping watching her fool batters, her admiration and love for Northwestern leaves a legacy way deeper than any changeup. No one in Evanston should ever wear the No. 24 again.

On the other side of the ‘Cats’ battery, there was no player more consistent than Jordyn Rudd. The Wildcats’ backstop was an all-around weapon, both at the plate and behind the dish. Rudd’s 200 career RBIs puts her second all-time in program history and she finished top five in hits. In all of those hits and RBIs, Rudd always seemed to get the big hit when the Wildcats needed it the most. The amount of times Rudd tied the game or won it this season alone would earn her the clutch badge, but No. 36 has done it her entire career at Northwestern. In my first game ever covering this team, Rudd hit the game-tying and go ahead RBIs, To someone who had no knowledge of this team or its history before this season, it was obvious, just from the eye test, that Rudd was special.

Behind the plate, Rudd was even better. She earned the Rawlings Gold Glove award and the Johnny Bench Award, given to the best defensive catcher in college softball. Rudd had such great rapport with the pitching staff, especially Williams, that they knew if they got it to her, she would handle the rest. It did not matter if the ball was in the clouds or bouncing in the dirt, Rudd always managed to come up with it.

She was also an incredible fielder. I don’t know if I’ve seen a more impressive play from a catcher than Rudd springing out of her squat to field a bunt and fire an absolute seed to gun down the runner at first. Her calming presence was always a welcomed sight for struggling pitchers in the circle, as a Rudd mound visit usually got the hurler back on target. After the games, No. 36 could always be found signing autographs for kids at the J, and was always having a blast with her teammates. While her on play dominance will be missed, Rudd’s infectious love for softball and NU will be her impact on the program. As Rudd heads to pro ball, everyone in purple and white will be cheering her on.

“I’ll be her biggest fan,” Drohan said.

No one had more fun on the softball field than Maeve Nelson. If you looked over at shortstop for the last 243 games, there’s a good chance you will see No. 4 dancing around to whatever is playing through the stadium speakers or even no music. For all the fun Nelson had, she displayed a killer instinct. The Wildcats’ shortstop can absolutely mash, as she drilled 40 home runs in her career, the ninth most in program history. I have only been around Nelson for one year, but she has been one of the best storylines all season.

With a rocky start to the season at the plate, Drohan dropped Nelson from the two-hole all the way to the seven spot. Now, most fifth-years would take it as a slight; however, Maeve did the exact opposite. Drohan said all Nelson told her was she would do whatever the team needed to win and put her head down to go to work. Her continued dedication to her craft paid off, as she cracked the walk-off RBI single to win the Big Ten Tournament. Sitting on my couch, I couldn’t help but feel the jubilation for Nelson as her teammates mobbed her. For all the disappointment of the season, to capture the team’s first Big Ten Tournament title in 15 years had to feel so good for No. 4.

Her ability to battle adversity continued until her very last collegiate at-bat. With Northwestern trailing 3-1 in its final frame of the season, in what would be her final at-bat of her career, Nelson launched a 3-1 pitch over the fence for a homerun, cutting the lead to one. With Northwestern down to its final two outs, Nelson could have given up, but she fought until the very end, a key characteristic that she helped instill in the program’s culture. To Nelson, keep dancing through life because you made all of us dance with joy for the last half decade.

Similar to Nelson, Nikki Cuchran was one of the best storylines in my time covering this team. Batting just .203 heading into Big Ten play. However, a cold winter at the dish did not deter No. 31; instead, the exact opposite happened. Cuchran got scorching hot and was one of the best players in the conference this season. She batted .420 in Big Ten play with 19 RBIs. She only struck out three times in 23 conference games, which is four fewer than the amount of times than she was hit by a pitch. It is hard to even describe how good Cuchran was once Northwestern returned to the Chicagoland area. It seemed that no matter what was thrown at her way, she was somehow finding open space for a base hit.

When I asked her about it earlier in April, she credited just trusting herself and her approach, a sign of great veteran leadership. Cuchran could have torn it all up and went back to the drawing board; however, she knew she was talented and believed it would come together, and it did. I would say that besides Williams, there was no one as dominant as No. 31 this season.

Cuchran earned First Team All-Big Ten honors for the second year in a row. In the field, she was phenomenal at first, scooping and stretching for any ball rifled at her. Cuchran had over a .990 fielding percentage in her final two seasons for the ‘Cats, taking the pressure of her teammates to make the perfect throw. An iron woman, Cuchran only missed four games in five years, and was a staple in the heart of NU’s order for half a decade. The ‘Cats slugger will be missed, but I’m pretty sure some of her rockets have left a permanent mark on Welsh-Ryan Arena.

Finally, it would be impossible to mention Northwestern softball without Skyler Shellmyer. The Wildcats’ leadoff hitter, center fielder and Lightning McQueen could do it all on the diamond. The three-time All-Big Ten honoree was everything NU could have asked for when the signed the Urbandale, Iowa native. The slap hitter was filthy at the top of Drohan’s order, putting pressure on the defense from the jump. Shellmyer batted over .340 and led the team in hits for her last three seasons in Evanston. No. 8’s 63 stolen bases put her inside the top 10 in program history, and it didn’t matter if an opponent knew she was running; there was no chance in catching her. Shellmyer also could cover all of center field with ease, fluidly tracking the ball for the grab.

Much like Nelson, No. 8 was always dancing around in the outfield and bringing smiles across all of her teammates’ faces. After every time she scored a run, you could hear the audible scream that Shellmyer let out to fire up her team. It was obvious that she loved not only softball, but Northwestern with everything she had. With that passion came a calming presence, as Shellmyer was constantly advising and cheering on her friends from the dugout or the outfield. You never knew what shenanigan No. 8 was going to pull, with my personal favorite being her feeding Nelson a snack after No. 4 hit a dinger in the Big Ten Tournament. While Shellmyer’s speed and skill on the field will be missed, her fun-loving personality will be the biggest loss to this clubhouse.

Without these five cornerstones of the program, Northwestern softball will look very different the next time it takes the field in 2024. As the wins and records fade over time to become just numbers, this group will have made a bigger impact off the field — building a winning culture. With this class of super seniors, Northwestern went from a very good Big Ten program to a perennial powerhouse, and sky-high expectations have been set.

Their home remains in Evanston and at the J, a place that they helped pack every weekend in the spring. As the place filled and a buzz was created around Northwestern softball, everyone in that stadium knew that they were about to witness magic. While they have to say goodbye to the purple and white, the five super seniors’ journey with the program is not over.

“I’ll count on these graduates to continue to be a positive force in our current team’s approach,” Drohan said. “That’s what’s so neat about our program is as you graduate, your job is just a little different, but you’re always part of that program. You can you can always help us win.”