Northwestern softball celebrates a big hit during a regular season game. After racing out to one of the hottest starts in program history, the team limped to the finish line, and will have a rough challenge ahead of them in the NCAA tournament. Photos by Brandi Simpson / North by Northwestern

When we last took a look at Northwestern softball (29-15), the team was riding one of the hottest starts in team history, racing out to an 18-2 record and finding themselves in early postseason contention. We made assertions like “Northwestern is one of the best teams in the country,” and that “the team is a two-way train that can stop you in your tracks and run you into them.” Hopes were high in Evanston, and the ’Cats were looking towards Oklahoma City for the College World Series.

This, of course, is why you don’t crown a champion halfway through the season. Following the 18-2 start, the Wildcats went 11-13 over their last 24 games, only winning series against Iowa (26-18 B1G) and Nebraska (22-22 B1G), and struggled against other Big Ten Contenders like eventual conference champion Michigan (36-6 B1G), who the ’Cats dropped three of four to, and runner-up Minnesota (29-11 B1G), who swept Northwestern at home. Still, with their wits kept about them, the ’Cats were able to scrape their way into the postseason, and will be opening their postseason play this Friday against No. 14 Kentucky (39-13, 13-11 SEC).

While making the postseason is nothing to sneeze at – Northwestern was one of only three Big Ten teams to make the NCAA Tournament this season – there is some concern about the Wildcats’ chances. With a pool featuring Kentucky, Notre Dame (31-13, 20-10 ACC) and Miami of Ohio (46-8, 36-2 MAC), the road to the super-regionals is a rocky one, and will require dominant play on both sides of the ball.

So what are the odds?

At Another Glance:

From left: Northwestern softball players Mac Dunlap, Maeve Nelson, Rachel Lewis and Danielle Williams talk strategy. Lewis and Williams were both named to the All-Big Ten First Team for their contributions to the team, along with center-fielder Skyler Shellmyer and catcher Jordyn Rudd.

Of course, it’d be remiss to jump right into the tournament without first understanding who the players to watch will be for Northwestern.

When we last analyzed this team, we made note of four batters for Northwestern: junior center-fielder Skyler Shellmyer, with a .362 batting average; senior second baseman Rachel Lewis, notching a .344 BA; junior catcher Jordyn Rudd, who whacked .347; and senior pitcher and designated hitter Morgan Newport, who hit 10 home runs and knocked 38 runs in. The squad tore up Big Ten leaderboards this year, with Shellmyer, Rudd and Lewis finishing fourth, sixth and seventh in conference batting average respectively, and Newport’s 38 RBI were the second-most of any player this season. The Big Ten also recognized these contributions well – Shellmyer, Rudd and Lewis all made All-Big Ten First Team, while Newport made the Second Team.

In the circle, we made note of the undisputed ace of the squad – junior lefthander Danielle Williams. While she has cooled off a bit her 10-2 start – finishing with a 16-6 record – there’s still no doubt in the hearts of Wildcat fans of her abilities. She pitched the first perfect game for Northwestern since 1989 against Iowa on April 16, and has continued to make two starts every weekend; her efforts have not gone unnoticed, as the Big Ten also named her to the First Team. When the ’Cats kick off their postseason, there’s almost no doubt that Williams will be taking on heavy innings as both a starter and reliever.

With a fantastic top of the lineup and an almost-perfect ace in the circle, the ’Cats look to have a pretty good shot in Lexington, right? Well, yes… if it weren’t for their opponents.

Old Kentucky Home:

The team lines up before a game at Sharon J Drysdale Field. Unfortunately for the 'Cats, they'll be away from home when they try to clinch a path to the College World Series. 

While the ’Cats did make the postseason, they didn’t exactly have the luck of the draw with their opponents, with a team from the best conference in softball, a perennial contender and the winningest squad in the NCAA as possible matchups.

Let’s start with the guaranteed game: Kentucky. In a conference that saw 12 of its 14 teams make the postseason this year, Kentucky finished fifth, and subsequently earned themselves the right to host the regional. The Wildcats, led by head coach Rachel Lawson, have one of the best offenses in the country, with a .329 batting average – first in the SEC and eleventh in the NCAA– and 350 runs scored this year, second in the SEC and tenth in the NCAA.

Leading this charge for the Wildcats is junior catcher Kayla Kowalik, who has a dazzling .505 batting average this year, meaning every time she comes up to bat, she has a 50% chance of getting a hit; her efforts have catapulted her to second in the NCAA in BA. A little behind her is a decent hit-squad of her own, including first-year shortstop Erin Coffel, who hit .354; junior right-fielder Tatum Spangler, who hit .353; senior left-fielder Lauren Johnson, who hit .347; and junior center-fielder Renne Abernathy, who hit .344.

In the circle for Kentucky will likely be fifth-year right-hander Autumn Humes, who posted a 20-7 record and 2.93 ERA this year over 34 games. Humes is not exactly a dominant pitcher, allowing 143 hits and striking out 139 this season, but her 156.2 innings of work is nothing to sneeze at.

On the Other Side of Paradise:

Whether the ’Cats win or lose to Kentucky, they’ll still have at least one more game to play against either Notre Dame or Miami of Ohio. Unfortunately for the ’Cats, neither team is preferable over the other, as each squad boasts a dominant winning streak and momentum that can really shift a game.

The Irish had won 14 straight games before dropping their opening matchup in the ACC tournament, and have been buoyed by strong pitching throughout this season, with a 2.27 team ERA. Unfortunately for the ’Cats, the Irish host a two-headed monster in their pitching staff, with junior right-hander Payton Tidd posting a 2.16 ERA over 27 games, and senior right-hander Alexis Holloway following right behind her with a 2.66 ERA over 26, making exactly when the ’Cats would play the Irish almost unimportant for pitching matchups. Hitting-wise, the team hosts just a .305 batting average, but the team will be watching out for senior center-fielder Abby Sweet, who hit a stunning .463 this season, and junior right-fielder Emma Clark, who hit .406.

On the other side of the bracket are the Redhawks of Miami. The Mid-American Conference champion has not made impressions on many due to their small conference, but their 46 regular season wins is the most in this year’s tournament, and they host a litany of hot bats, including two .400 hitters – junior infielder Allie Cummins (.441) and first-year infielder Karli Spaid (.416) – and four hitters around .350. The team is also eighth in the NCAA in home runs per game, hitting an average of 1.61 with a total of 87 overall.

In addition, the Redhawks also host a fantastic defensive scheme, posting nineteen shutouts on the year; good for third in the NCAA. This scheme is led by senior right-hander Courtney Vierstra, who posted a 1.59 ERA over 171.2 innings pitched and notched 261 strikeouts on the year. While it’s unknown how much of this success can be undermined by a weak conference, the Redhawks are certainly not a team for the ’Cats to sleep on.

So what’s the game plan?

Win or Play Again

Rachel Lewis gears up for a pitch. The 'Cats will need to swing for the fences in every game of this series, as they go up against some of the most potent offenses in the country. 

As noted previously, the NCAA Softball tournament is unlike others in that it’s what’s called “double-elimination,” meaning a team is not officially out of contention until they lose two games. So how could this weekend go down?

If the ’Cats pull off a victory against Kentucky, they’ll stay in the winners’ bracket, and play the winner of Miami-Notre Dame; if they lose, it’s just the opposite, playing the loser of the game, but it will be for elimination; from that point on, if the ’Cats lose, it’s over. The loser of the winners’ bracket game will then play the winner of the first elimination game, again to be eliminated, to determine the final two teams; the champion of the winner’s bracket will only have to win one game to win the regional, while the champion of the loser’s bracket will have to win two to finish the job.

Make sense? Just remember, if a team has one loss, they could be eliminated in their next game, and can’t afford to lose from then on. With this in mind, it’s critical that Northwestern – who has been streaky as of late with their offense sometimes not clicking – jumps out to a quick start and capitalizes early on Kentucky and Miami hitters, seeing that each of them feature one of the best hitting squads in the league. Danielle Williams will be key to watch, as she could log heavy innings to keep the ’Cats in tight games, as well as Northwestern’s offensive core, as they go up against some of the best offenses in the country. No such thing as too much offense.

On to Lexington.

No need to peace out too early, now.