It’s officially softball season!
Northwestern began its Big Ten title defense on Friday, kicking off the 2024 season in Arizona by competing in the Kajikawa Classic. It is a much different squad than the last time the ‘Cats took the field, reaching the NCAA Super Regional in 2023. For the first time in five years, the Wildcats did not have Danielle Williams, Jordyn Rudd, Nikki Cuchran, Maeve Nelson and Skyler Shellmyer in the starting lineup on opening day. When the ‘Cats stepped onto the diamond this morning, it began a new era of Northwestern softball. Despite plenty of new faces, nine to be exact, head coach Kate Drohan has been impressed with her squad throughout the preseason.
“It’s been fun to figure out how to teach them,” Drohan told Inside NU. “Each team is so unique, and we as coaches need to learn them and really craft the best way to kind of teach them and guide them along. I feel like in the last six practices, I can see our play being elevated. It was a little clunky in the beginning of January, but we’re doing some good stuff here.”
The biggest question mark facing the Wildcats in 2024 is their pitching rotation. Without Williams, the 2022 Big Ten Pitcher of the Year and winningest pitcher in program history, Northwestern will have to create a new trust tree and determine who can take the circle throughout the season. Drohan and pitching coach Michelle Gascoigne will also have to find a new strategy to fill the innings that Williams used to eat. In the last five years, Williams led the ‘Cats in innings pitched, eclipsing the 200 mark twice; however, Northwestern has seven pitchers on its roster, a number so high that Drohan could not recall the last time her team fielded that many.
“We’ve been preaching to our pitchers to stay calm in the moment,” Drohan said. “Keep competing, keep pounding the strike zone and trust your spin through the zone. We’re excited for people to step up.”
Taking the reins from Williams will presumably be Lauren Boyd. Boyd burst onto the scene in 2023, slotting into the No. 2 spot in the rotation. In her junior season, Boyd turned in a 2.24 ERA and an 8-4 record. Her 103 innings last season was the first time a Northwestern pitcher not named Williams eclipsed the triple-digit mark since 2019. A ground ball pitcher, Boyd finished 2023 with 93 punchouts; however, her .224 opponent batting average placed No. 15 in the upper echelon in the Big Ten. With another offseason under her belt, the senior appears destined to be the ace and workhorse of the rotation.
The only other returning pitcher to toss meaningful innings for the ‘Cats last season was Cami Henry. Henry transferred to Northwestern after spending her undergraduate career at DePauw but struggled in her first season in purple and white. Throughout the year, Henry had trouble keeping the ball in the yard, giving up two or more homers in seven appearances. Despite Drohan shying away from Henry in the postseason, the ‘Cats’ skipper is confident the sixth-year will look more like her undergraduate self in 2024.
“She put a team on her back and was a warrior for her undergrad,” Drohan said. “We talked a lot about that same kind of mentality here, being ready for the ball whenever we want to hand it to her. I think the more we asked her, the better she’ll be.”
As Drohan and Co. looked to round out its rotation this summer, the coaches turned to the transfer portal and brought a familiar foe to the shores of Lake Michigan. In its lone portal move of the season, Northwestern added Ashley Miller from Michigan State. Miller had back-to-back sub-3.00 ERA seasons to start her collegiate career but posted a 5.43 last season. Despite the lackluster year in 2023, Drohan told Inside NU that she caught Miller’s first-ever bullpen in Evanston and was dazzled by Miller’s stuff. Much like in Henry, the Wildcats’ head coach has full faith that Miller can reach her ace potential.
“It’s about really trusting that stuff, feeding the defense and understanding how our system is going to work behind her,” Drohan said. “There’s no doubt in my mind she’s ready.”
Similar to the missing star in the circle, the Wildcats will have to replace the other half of their battery as well. Rudd, the 2022 catcher of the year, is now an assistant coach at Purdue, so Northwestern will have a new backstop this season. NU has two options behind the dish this year: Lauren Sciborski and Emma Raye.
Sciborski, a junior, has shown some pop with her bat, smacking five extra-base hits in 2023; however, she has not played a lot behind the plate. On the other hand, Raye was predicted to be the Big Ten Freshman of the Year by Softball America. Drohan said both will see time early in the year behind the dish and noted how excited she is by both of the catchers’ hitting prowess. However, securing the starting gig will come down to working with the pitcher in the circle and calling a game.
“They’ve got to understand what this pitcher shakes, this is what we’re going to, or this is what she’s feeling that day,” Drohan said. “We’re asking a lot of them, but I have no doubt that they can step up and do it.”
Moving around the infield, Hannah Cady will hold down the hot corner, playing third base. Besides Cady, there is only one other member of the 2023 starting infield who will take the field with the ‘Cats in 2024. Grace Nieto will trot out to second base for the third straight season, looking to bounce back after an injury-plagued sophomore campaign. Nieto missed almost a month with a lower-body injury last year and never found her groove at the plate. While her numbers from last year do not jump off the stat sheet, Drohan said that Nieto played well in 2023. Now as a three-year starter and upperclassman, No. 22 is in prime position to take a step forward.
“Everybody internally knew she gave everything she had,” Drohan said about Nieto. “She played through a lot of discomfort last year to get our team that championship.”
For the other two infield positions, the Wildcats will turn to a pair of sophomores poised to have breakout campaigns. After Nelson played almost every game at shortstop over the past five years, Drohan and Co. will turn the spot over to Bridget Donahey for 2024. Donahey spent most of her first season as a pinch runner; however, when she did step into the batter’s box, she hit a meager .063. The lack of production in her first collegiate season appears to be more from a lack of consistent reps than a talent issue. Coming out of high school, Donahey was ranked 13th in the nation for her recruiting class by Extra Innings Softball. Drohan noted the amount of work that Donahey has put in since arriving on campus, and it should be evident when she takes over one of the most vaunted positions in all of sports.
“She’s a really, really smooth shortstop,” Drohan said.
Rounding out the infield should be Kansas Robinson replacing Cuchran at first base. Spending most of her first year as the designated player or filling in for the injured Nieto at second base, Robinson displayed her prowess at the plate, slashing .284 with 16 extra-base hits. While No. 10 already started 42 games last season, she will be a fixture in the heart of Northwestern’s lineup. However, Drohan was non-committal about Robinson at first, saying that first-year Ainsley Muno has been hitting the ball well in practice.
Moving to the outfield, the corners are set with Angela Zedak returning for one last season and Kelsey Nader building on an impressive freshman season; however, the big change will be Ayana Lindsey taking over in center field. Lindsey has played all over the diamond during her time at NU, including coming off the bench as a pinch runner. Now roaming the middle, Drohan described Lindsey as an “anchor” of the ‘Cats’ defense,
Overall, the biggest shift for the Wildcats entering this season is, based on today’s version of college athletics, a generation one. When the Wildcats took the field on opening day in 2023, eight of the 10 starters were upperclassmen. In fact, the ‘Cats graduated 10 players last year, nearly half of their roster. Flash forward to opening day in 2024, and NU has eight first-years on its roster — the most since the Class of 2018. You know, the one that produced all of the superstars for the past five years.
“I knew they were going to be fun, but they’re feisty,” Drohan quipped.
Nevertheless, Drohan said that the newbies will see action throughout the early portion of the season, and they’ll have to adjust to the college game quickly. Despite having plenty of veteran pitchers ahead on the depth chart, Drohan expects the three young hurlers to be in the circle this season. She added that some will see heavier workloads than others, but even if the first-years do not get many opportunities in the circle during 2024, Drohan refused to let their talent slip away.
“Something that [Sharon] Drysdale taught me a long time ago [is] when you find a player that you really want on your team, go get them,” Drohan said. “She taught me to focus a lot less on balancing each class and more on finding the right people.”
When the ‘Cats last laced up their cleats, a veteran group had been through the highs and lows of college softball, letting their experience carry the momentum and stabilize the ship at times. This time around, a young team will have to find its footing as it traverses away from home for the next month. Furthermore, Northwestern’s early season schedule is by no means a cakewalk, so the Wildcats will have to try and stay ahead of the learning curve as they get their feet wet. Drohan is optimistic that all the preparation over the past nine months will alleviate the curve, allowing the ‘Cats to play free and trust their training out on the field.
“They’re really focused on the process, so I appreciate the mature focus that they have,” Drohan said. “We’re gonna play Boise State, and our goal is to be a better team when we take the field together against Arizona State.”
For the next five weeks, the Wildcats will hit the road and play in tournaments across the country. Whether it be on the West Coast or down south, the Wildcats will not only learn how to play together as a unit on the field, but these trips also create a time for the team to build the camaraderie needed to sustain the peaks and valleys of a grueling three month season. While Drohan joked that she doesn’t have as much control over which tournaments NU plays in as she might want, the beginning of the season lays the foundation for when Big Ten play begins in late March.
“These are just as important games we play the first weekend of May,” Drohan said. “It’s important for us to start fast. It’s important for us to really understand the pace of play right away.”
Starting today, Northwestern’s title defense is on. Sure, it is a much different team than the one a year ago, but the groundwork is there. Winning is the standard at the J, so there is no dip in expectations for Drohan — who’s eager to see her revamped team realize its hard work.
“Once you get in the games and you start playing together, that’s when some really fun growth happens,” Drohan said. “I’m excited to start that with them, and I think we’re ready.”