Northwestern junior catcher Jordyn Rudd swings at a pitch against Minnesota. Despite a stellar performance in the series from Rudd, the 'Cats were undermined by poor defensive play and dropped three of four games to the conference-leading Michigan Wolverines. Photos by Brandi Simpson / North by Northwestern

On April 23, Northwestern softball (22-10 B1G) beat Big Ten leader Michigan (24-5 B1G) 4-1 in Ann Arbor. The win was critical for the Wildcats, making a statement to the rest of the Big Ten and proving the team could compete against the top contenders in the league, and possibly holding postseason implications. It was definitely one of the best wins of the season, and Northwestern was playing with fire.

Unfortunately, softball is played in series; after dropping Game 1, the Wolverines won three straight matchups over Northwestern, taking the series 3-1 and proving exactly why they’re the dominant team in the Big Ten. While the ’Cats made two of their three losses competitive, often keeping things close until the final frame, they were unable to finish the job once again.

While it was not the fantastic conclusion Northwestern was searching for, there were still fantastic performances on both sides of the ball. In the circle for the ’Cats, Northwestern was once again led by the dominant efforts of junior left-hander Danielle Williams, who pitched a complete game in the Wildcat victory on April 23 and allowed just two hits, and also pitched 6.1 innings in the 6-3 Game 3 loss on April 24.

Williams, seen here fielding a popup, was lights out in her two performances against Michigan, pitching 13.1 innings and allowing just two hits in Game 1. 

Offensively, Northwestern was led by junior catcher Jordyn Rudd, who totaled five hits and five RBIs over the four games, and junior center-fielder Skyler Shellmyer, who whacked six hits and scored three runs.

Michigan was led in their offensive effort by junior center-fielder Lexie Blair, who scored four runs and knocked three hits, and senior first-baseman Lou Allan, who whacked six hits and knocked in four runs over four games. In the circle, their best pitching performances came from junior right-hander Alex Storako, who pitched two complete games to victories, struck out 17 and allowed just seven hits.

As previously mentioned, the series started on a positive note for the Wildcats, as they beat the Wolverines 4-1 in the opening game. After scoring the first run in the third inning on a dribbling single from senior second-baseman Rachel Lewis, Northwestern cracked the game open in the fifth inning on a big double from Rudd, who knocked a double off the wall to clear the bases- and a sacrifice fly from sophomore left-fielder Angela Zedak. Williams completed the game for Northwestern, pitching a complete seven innings and allowing just two hits.

Williams warms up to throw while infielders Mac Dunlap, Maeve Nelson and Rachel Lewis chat behind her. The Wildcat defense was stingy in Game 1, allowing just two hits and one run to score. 

Unfortunately for the ’Cats, the Wolverine bats woke up for the second game, as they punched through the Wildcat defense to win 7-2. Despite leading in the fourth inning 2-1 –built from a nice two run homer from junior shortstop Maeve Nelson – Northwestern dropped the game on a comedy of errors in the bottom half of the fourth.

With the bases loaded for Blair with two outs, the Michigan center-fielder knocked a dribbler up the shortstop side that went through the legs of Nelson and past Shellmyer. With the ball running all the way to the wall, Blair speedily rounded the bases to score an inside-the-park grand slam. It was enough for the Wolverines, who added another two runs in the sixth to win the game 7-2.

Undeterred, Northwestern returned for the third game with power and confidence on their side. The ’Cats built a 3-1 lead early in the game with two key hits from the power-hitting Rudd, including an RBI double in the first and a nice two-run shot in the third inning. With six outs to play, Northwestern held a two-run lead over the conference-leading Michigan.

Once again, however, Michigan refused to go down easy. The Wolverines tied the game up in the sixth inning on a two-out pinch hit double from sophomore utility player Chandler Dennis. The ’Cats escaped the inning with the score tied 3-3, but after failing to score in the seventh, Northwestern ran out of gas, and allowed two runners to reach before allowing a walkoff home run to Michigan’s Allan, losing the game 6-3.

Following the dramatic back-and-forth, the ’Cats were simply unable to get going in the final game, losing 2-0. Northwestern reached base on just five occasions and struck out 10 times, and they were unable to get any runs on the board. While Northwestern allowed just six hits themselves, including a nice five-strikeout performance from graduate pitcher Morgan Newport, the Wolverines just needed a third-inning, two-run shot from senior third-baseman Taylor Bump to win the series-clincher.

While the final result may have been disheartening, ’Cats fans have a lot to be happy about. Northwestern proved themselves to be on the same level as the Big Ten leader, with only a few miscues holding them from either close losses or tough wins. The offense seems to be holding its own, and Danielle Williams continues to dominate in the pitching circle. If Northwestern can lock down on the mistakes, they might be able to work themselves into a postseason situation.

The ’Cats will now return home for their rivalry series against Illinois (20-12 B1G). This time, the series will be for more than bragging rights, as the two squads are currently fighting for third in the Big Ten. With a power-hitting core behind them, the ’Cats are primed to take the series as a launchpad back into the top rankings, and perhaps go on an important run.

Push on, Northwestern.

Back home we go.