Northwestern softball gets hyped up before a game in 2021. Losing just two players to graduation, the 'Cats are hoping to explode back into postseason play this season. Photos by Brandi Simpson / North by Northwestern

Ah, February. When the cold air lifts, the snow stops falling, and the warm temperatures of spring finally break through, welcoming the wonders of dawn.

Okay, maybe it’s not actually spring yet, but don’t tell the NCAA. Spring sports are getting their start this month, playing at indoor venues and warm climates, and plenty of eyes will be turning south as teams try to heat up before coming back to Evanston to open Big Ten play. One of these sports is softball, as teams across the country head to storied tournaments to take part in inter conference competitions and test their skills.

Northwestern is no different, as they’ll open their season this weekend in Leesburg, Florida at the Northern Lights Invitational. Taking on teams like No. 13 Virginia Tech and No. 24 Liberty, the ’Cats will certainly have a rough test to open their season, but they’ll be playing with passion and a chip on their shoulder, as they have plenty to prove after falling in the opening rounds of last year’s NCAA tournament.

Like with any team opening their season, however, the Wildcats have plenty of questions facing their core. Can they deal with the departures they suffered in the offseason? Which players are going to be key to watch in the upcoming season? And, as usual, what can fans expect in terms of success? As is usually the case, we’re going to try to answer all these questions and give an idea of what Northwestern could accomplish this season.

Spoiler alert: it’s pretty optimistic.

A (Very Brief) Look Back

Northwestern stands on the foul line for the National Anthem before a 2021 game against Minnesota. The 'Cats are a storied program in Big Ten softball, especially in recent years. 

Of course, we recognize that not everyone is as up-to-date as ourselves in Northwestern softball, so for those of you new to the team, let us bring you up to speed.

The ’Cats, simply put, are a pretty damn good program. Led by the winningest coaches in program history – twins Kate and Caryl Drohan – Northwestern is a perennial contender for the Big Ten title, and they have earned bids to the six previous NCAA tournaments. This includes last season, when they went 29-15 in conference play and ended up third in the Big Ten. Sharon J. Drysdale Field is a fantastic place to take in a game, especially to root for a winning team.

Of course, nothing beats the crack – or in softball’s case, the metal CLANG – of the bat in the springtime, and the ’Cats know this well. Last season, the ’Cats finished second in the Big Ten in batting average – whacking a solid .282 average – and first in both runs scored (238) and runs batted in (210). Northwestern gets on the board often, and knows how to clear the bases pretty well.

Pretty exciting, right? It gets better: Northwestern only had two significant departures this offseason – infielder Mac Dunlap and utility player Morgan Newport – as both graduated following the season. While their bats will be significantly missed in the lineup – they batted .250 and .304 in 47 games played, respectively – the good news is that a majority of the contending core has returned for at least one more season.

So which bats does that include?

Bats in the Belfry

Senior left-fielder Skyler Shellmyer celebrates a big hit. Shellmyer is one of three position players currently on the team who won First Team All-Big Ten honors last year.

Last season, Northwestern had four current players finish First Team All-Big Ten: graduate second baseman Rachel Lewis, senior catcher Jordyn Rudd, senior outfielder Skyler Shellmyer, and senior pitcher Danielle Williams– more on her later. The three position players make up the core of the Wildcat offense, and are one of the most potent attacks in the country, let alone the conference.

Let’s start, like the team, with the leadoff hitter: Rachel Lewis. Lewis, returning for a fifth season, is an absolute terror to face in the batter’s box, as she led the team in on-base percentage (.492) last season. That means that 49% of the time, she’s going to get on base, whether with a hit or a walk. She’s also an absolute speed demon on the basepaths: on 32 attempts last season, she stole 30 bases, making her a scoring threat from anywhere on the diamond.

Close behind Lewis is the team’s power-hitter, Rudd. Ranked the No. 9 catcher in the country by Softball America, Rudd was second on the team last season in hits with 51, and she has the uncanny ability to poke the ball through to the outfield for extra bases. She was tied for first on the team last season with 11 doubles, and even struck three home runs to boot. Lewis and Rudd are a deadly duo to face first, as Lewis sets them up and Rudd knocks them down.

That’s not to discount Shellmyer, however, as she actually posted the team’s best – and B1G fourth-best – batting average (.360), as well as whacking 54 hits. Used further down in the lineup to give the lower batters a spark down the stretch, Shellmyer is a constant threat to pitchers and batters alike, and she will likely shine in her final season in the outfield.

Of course, there are more than just three players on the team. The ’Cats feature excellent “utility players” across the diamond, including senior first-baseman Nikki Cuchran, who whacked 40 hits last season; senior shortstop Maeve Nelson, who batted in 28 runs in 2021; and junior left-fielder Angela Zedak, who started all 47 games last season. There are also young stars in the group, including first-year Lauren Sciborski, who was named one of the top newcomers to watch in the Big Ten this season by Softball America.

In short, this is an experienced group that can clear the basepaths in any situation. As all great critics will point out, however, that’s only half the story, as a team is only as good as its pitching staff.

Luckily, Northwestern has just the star for that.

Williams’ World

Williams gets ready to deliver a pitch. Williams is one of the best pitchers in the country, let alone the Big Ten. 

There are two things you need to know about softball if you don’t know them already: the first is that the pitching mechanics involved are completely different than one would expect from baseball, as the use of the underhand pitch and shoulder release allow pitchers to pitch long outings and often appear twice in a series, compared to the uncomfortable overhand motion baseball pitchers use. As a result, softball pitchers are often noted as workhorses who get the job done for their teams in clutch situations.

The second thing you need to know about softball is that Northwestern senior Danielle Williams is one of the best pitchers in the country.

This isn’t a bold claim, nor is it unfounded, as Williams has been named to almost every award watchlist there is this season, including preseason All-American by Softball America. After being named Freshman of the Year by several organizations in 2019, Williams enjoyed her second “full” season with unbelievable success. She pitched a perfect game – facing and retiring every single batter she faced – against Iowa last season on April 16 and posted a 2.21 ERA and 17-7 record, while pitching 16 complete games.

Needless to say, this is Williams’ team, and she’ll likely be working heavy innings throughout the season. Fans can expect her to start the first game of a series, likely appear in later innings of the middle games, and then start the final game, in an effort that – in every sense of the word – is purely Herculean.

While Williams will be the star, no pitching staff is complete without a few role players. Sophomore Lauren Boyd will be looking to rise to the occasion as the No. 2 pitcher this season and improve upon her 2.73 ERA – certainly nothing to turn your nose up at. The question for the ’Cats, however, will be if this tandem can come in clutch in the marathon of the season. Can two pitchers carry the load of a 50-game stretch?

In short, this team comes from great coaching, has a great offense, and a great pitcher to lead them to glory. What would really be great, though? A National Championship.

Time to get serious.