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Previewing Northwestern softball’s newcomers

Could the ‘Cats’ newest additions help propel the team to a three-peat?

NCAA Softball: Women’s College World Series UCLA vs Northwestern Brett Rojo-USA TODAY Sports

As Northwestern looks to become Big Ten regular season champions for the third-straight year and return to the NCAA Tournament for a fourth consecutive season, it will face a tall task in replacing several departing stars. Could a new batch of transfers and first-years be the key to unlocking Northwestern’s potential? Here’s an introduction to NU’s newcomers:

Ashley Miller, Michigan State grad transfer, Pitcher

Likely the most important name on this list is Northwestern’s sole transfer addition for this season. Miller comes to Evanston after three seasons in East Lansing. Across 68 games started and over 400 innings pitched, Miller has a 2.51 career ERA and 472 strikeouts. In 2023, Miller took a step back, with a 6-12 record and 4.22 ERA. But with two seasons with a sub-2.00 ERA under her belt and a historical track record of success in the Big Ten, the ‘Cats are betting on Miller’s ability to rebound in 2024. After the departure of Northwestern legend Danielle Williams from the mound, Miller will be asked to help fill those shoes in what looks to be a committee approach alongside the likes of Cami Henry and Lauren Boyd.

Renae Cunningham, First-year, Pitcher

The right-hander joins Northwestern after a stellar career at Heath High School in Ohio, where she also played volleyball. Cunningham has surprising juice at the plate for a pitcher, hitting above .500 in both her sophomore and junior seasons, adding 35 homers across the two campaigns. In the circle, she’s thrown well over 200 innings of sub-1.50 ERA ball and has some real velocity. She has the chance to contribute early on for the ‘Cats depending on how the rotation shakes out.

Riley Grudzielanek, First-year, Pitcher/Infielder

Grudzielanek, another right-handed pitcher, took home plenty of hardware at Oak Creek High School in Wisconsin. She was named All-State in both 2021 and 2022 and holds the state record with 22 strikeouts in a seven-inning game (I’ll let you do the math to determine how rare this feat is). With a strong fastball, Grudzielanek threw back-to-back seasons with an ERA of 0.52 and 0.51. Just like Cunningham, the first-year could make an early impression as the rotation takes shape in a post-Danielle Williams world.

Isabel Cunnea, First-year, Outfielder

Cunnea, who grew up just 25 minutes away from campus in Oak Lawn, enters Northwestern after tons of individual and team success in high school. She led Marist to state championships in 2021 and 2023. Finishing with 23 home runs this season, Cunnea broke the program record, passing Northwestern’s own Angela Zedak, who previously held the title with 22. She is able to hit for both contact and power, and is a sure thing on the defensive end. With an all-around skillset including a burst of speed, don’t be surprised if Cunnea sees the field early in her college career.

Emma Raye, First-year, Catcher/Infielder

Raye could be one of the most crucial newcomers for the ‘Cats this season after program legend Jordyn Rudd leaves big shoes to fill in the catcher spot. The only two catchers listed on Northwestern’s roster are Raye and Lauren Sciborski, so it would be surprising if Raye did not see the field this season. Raye, another Wisconsin-native was the 2022 Wisconsin FSCA D-1 Player of the Year and batted .556 in her final year at Superior Senior High School. Behind the plate, she is known for her ability to keep wild pitches in front of her and also possesses the ability to pick off base-runners.

Ainsley Muno, First-year, Infielder

Muno, another in-state recruit (Barrington High School) is likely a future first baseman for the Wildcats. As a hitter, she put together fantastic seasons in 2021 and 2022, accumulating over 100 hits and 22 home runs, consistently producing with runners in scoring position. Kate Drohan has praised Muno’s softball IQ and although she seems likely to start as a reserve player, she could grow into a larger role for the ‘Cats.

Hannah Cushing, First-year, Outfielder

It may surprise some to see Cushing, a California-native, among Northwestern’s recruiting class, but it shouldn’t. With two Northwestern parents, including Jim Cushing, a Big Ten tennis champion for Northwestern in 1990, Evanston was a natural fit. Cushing comes in listed as an outfielder, but has experience at a variety of defensive positions and helped her travel team win the 16U National Championship in 2021, hitting .386 in the championship series. With Skyler Shellmyer’s departure, the ‘Cats have a spot to fill in the outfield, but it seems more likely that Cushing grows into a role rather than being an opening day starter.

Signe Dohse, First-year, Pitcher/Utility

A former Junior Olympic gymnast, Dohse is one of the most unique players on Northwestern’s roster. In 2022, Dohse hit .462 while also throwing 115 strikeouts with a 1.83 ERA. A year earlier, she held opponents to a .113 batting average and threw a no-hitter in section championships. The Minnesota native can spin the ball from the circle while also having the versatility to line up at several other positions, hence her utility status. The right-hander has a rocket arm and showcased a variety of different pitches in high school. Dohse’s experience could make her less of a developmental project and her versatility may allow her to see the field earlier than expected.

Grace Minarovic, First-year, Infielder

If you recognize that last name, it’s for good reason: Grace’s brother, Evan, played four seasons for Northwestern’s baseball team before transferring to WashU for the upcoming season. Minarovic was named team MVP in four consecutive seasons for the John Cooper School in The Woodlands, Texas, and holds the school’s single-season and career home run records. The shortstop steps into a crowded infield room, but the ‘Cats have to replace Maeve Nelson, who started 243 games at the position.