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Softball: Seven things to know from Northwestern’s opening weekend at the Kajikawa Classic

What did we learn from the Wildcats’ 4-1 weekend in Tempe?

@NUSBcats — Twitter

It’s not Punxsutawney Phil who declares when spring has arrived (I don’t know who gave that groundhog so much power to begin with). Rather, the official marking of the season change, at least in my books, is the dawn of the softball season. As of this weekend, spring has arrived as Northwestern kicked off its season at the Kajikawa Classic in Tempe, Arizona. Across five games in a three-day span, the ‘Cats started the season strong, going 4-1. Here are the seven most important things to know from the Wildcats’ opening quintet of matches:

1. No sign of 2B Grace Nieto or P Lauren Boyd

Despite the overall success of the weekend, neither Grace Nieto nor Lauren Boyd saw the field in any of the five games — certainly a surprise considering both seemed poised to play major roles for the ‘Cats this season. Nieto started 28 games at second base for NU last season while Boyd finished second in innings pitched, recording a career-best 2.24 ERA. I’d say it’s most likely that both players are banged up, and should return to the lineup at some point. The status of both players is something worth monitoring.

2. Ashley Miller — welcome to Evanston!

No Boyd, no problem. With Boyd out of this weekend’s rotation, Kate Drohan called on Michigan State transfer Ashley Miller to help carry the ‘Cats through the first slate of games, and boy, did she deliver. Across nine innings of total action, Miller allowed no runs, striking out 16 batters and only allowing five hits.

Against host team Arizona State, in a rematch of the 2022 Super Regional, Miller dazzled in the circle, throwing a complete game with 11 strikeouts and picking up her first win in purple as the ‘Cats defeated the Sun Devils 2-0. The following day against Weber State, Miller entered the game in relief for Cami Henry, tasked with maintaining Northwestern’s one-run lead to close the game out. Miller struck out five of the seven batters she faced, only allowing a single baserunner as she stymied Weber State’s comeback attempt and earned her first save of the 2024 campaign.

If the early returns are any indication, Miller, who was stellar in 2021 and 2022 but endured a down year a season ago, looks rejuvenated and dangerous. Her resurgence could be a major game-changer for the ‘Cats as they try to fill the shoes of Danielle Williams.

3. First-year pitchers, we see you too

Two first-years saw time in the circle during opening weekend, and both Renae Cunningham and Riley Grudzielanek gave ‘Cats fans a lot to be excited about.

Cunningham first saw the field in the season opener against Boise State in the reliever role. Cunningham played solid, going 2.1 innings and allowing only a single hit. Unfortunately, that one hit proved to be decisive: a Brooklynn Pettis homer that gave the Broncos the lead in the sixth. With the ‘Cats unable to rally in the seventh, Cunningham was credited with Northwestern’s sole loss on the weekend. On Sunday, the freshman bounced back in a major way, throwing five innings of scoreless ball against Weber State. She struck out eight and allowed just two baserunners en route to a win. After 7.1 innings of total action, Cunningham’s WHIP (walks + hits per inning) sits at a sterling 0.55.

Grudzielanek, meanwhile, earned the Saturday start against St. Thomas, where she threw five innings of one-run ball, more than enough for Northwestern to collect a 11-1 win in a game that was completed in five innings. The Wisconsin freshman struck out four and showed off her two-way versatility across Saturday and Sunday, recording hits in all three games she received at-bats.

4. The first-year hitters were equally as impressive

Two freshman started all five games for Northwestern, catcher Emma Raye and right fielder Izzy Cunnea, and both looked undaunted in their first taste of collegiate athletics. Both players leave Tempe with a batting average of .250 — nothing crazy impressive on paper, but both contributed to wins, and more importantly, looked ready for the moment.

Raye reached base in all five contests, including her Northwestern debut where she singled and walked against Boise State. Against Arizona State, Raye struck out three times, showing some first-year growing pains, but she recovered in a big way Saturday, smacking her first-career home-run against St. Thomas.

Cunnea recorded two hits against ASU, tacking on another in the first matchup against Weber State and adding a walk and a HBP to her totals by the end of the weekend. Kate Drohan’s decision to rely on the team’s youth paid early dividends, in large part because of the composedness of Cunnea and Raye.

5. Welcome to the Angela Zedak and Kansas Robinson show

Listen, there’s a reason that everyone on this site picked either Angela Zedak or Kansas Robinson to be Northwestern’s MVP this season. Through five games, those predictions are spot-on, as both looked excellent in the opening slate of games. Here’s a side-by-side comparison of their equally-whacko weekend stats, albeit in a small sample size:

Those numbers are honestly preposterous. My favorite stats: .737 OBP for Robinson, astronomical OPS for both and impressively, no strikeouts for either. In the first Weber State game, the two combined for all of Northwestern’s scoring: a Robinson jack in the first and a Zedak two-run bomb that proved to be the game-winner in the fifth. Zedak closed the weekend with back-to-back games going 4-4 at the plate, and will head into next weekend having reached based in all of her past 11 plate appearances. Robinson reached base at least twice in each game, recording a hit in all of them, and already seems destined for a breakout sophomore campaign.

6. Against better competition, stranded runners could become a problem

Northwestern got better as the weekend went on. In the first three games, the ‘Cats went 2-1 with a +2 run differential, playing in close battles in all three games. The final two games of the trip to Arizona looked far more like last year’s domination, as the ‘Cats quashed both of their opponents in five innings, going 2-0 with a +18 run differential. In those first handful of games, runners left on base became a worrying storyline that could rear its head as the schedule intensifies.

In the Boise State loss, Northwestern left nine runners stranded, five of whom were in scoring position. In the fourth, the ‘Cats loaded the bases with a chance to take the lead, but could not capitalize. An inning later, an Ayana Lindsey double brought Hannah Cady home to tie the game at 3, but with Lindsey on second base with only one out, once again Northwestern wasn’t able to take the lead.

Against the Sun Devils, NU escaped with the 2-0 win, but left 10 runners on base, including six in scoring position. In that game, the ‘Cats hit just .188 with runners on base and .100 with runners in scoring position. If not for Ashley Miller’s performance in the circle, the story of this game could have been much different, and missed opportunities would be the headline.

7. Highlight of the weekend: Ayana Lindsey on SportsCenter Top 10

There were a lot of questions as to how Northwestern would replace Skyler Shellmyer in center field. From a defensive standpoint, all of those questions can be left in the Arizona desert because Ayana Lindsey has arrived. It took only two games for the junior to make an appearance on ESPN, earning the number three spot on Friday’s best play countdown thanks to this Superman-esque grab in the grass:

Heck yeah. Softball is so back.

Northwestern will be back in action this weekend, where they will head to Clearwater, Florida for the Shriners Children’s Clearwater Invitational. In five matchups across three days the ‘Cats will take on No. 15 LSU, Georgia Tech, No. 11 Oklahoma State, No. 5 Texas and UCF.