Northwestern junior third-baseman Mac Dunlap chats with teammates before a game at Sharon J. Drysdale Field. Dunlap, along with teammate Nikki Cuchran, were the stars of Northwestern's offensive performance in the regional tournament, but were not enough to push the 'Cats over the power-hitting Kentucky. Photos by Brandi Simpson / North by Northwestern

One of the most important aspects to long-distance running is the concept of “pacing,” referring to the idea that runners must not use all their strength at once in order to finish the job. Pacing yourself is not limited to just marathon running, however, as it often applies to independent work to prevent burnout, consumption, or just to prevent injuries.

For Northwestern softball (30-17, 29-15 B1G), their marathon was very evident: their NCAA regional matchup in Lexington, Kentucky. Playing some of the toughest squads in the nation, the ’Cats played three games– two against No. 14 Kentucky (43-14, 13-11 SEC) and one against Miami of Ohio (46-10, 36-2 MAC)– before being eliminated out of the double-elimination tournament. Playing three games in two days and under the threat of their season ending, the ’Cats turned in some fantastic performances, but were unable to finish the job to move on.

Embodying the sense of the marathon sprint was junior left-hander Danielle Williams, who pitched in all three games, including two complete games: an opening 3-2 loss against Kentucky, and a dominant 7-1 win over Miami of Ohio. Over those two games, Williams pitched thirteen innings, and allowed just nine hits and four runs to score, while striking out 13 batters.

In the batter’s box, the ’Cats were led by junior infielder Nikki Cuchran, who notched six hits, three runs scored and four runs batted in, and junior center-fielder Skyler Shellmyer, who whacked four hits and scored two runs. Junior shortstop Maeve Nelson also shined, scoring three runs on one hit and notching an RBI. The Wildcat offense, however, struggled to capitalize, leaving several runners on base and failing to score off key hits.

Nikki Cuchran, seen here getting ready before a game, was the star of the Wildcats' postseason run, whacking six hits over three games, including a key grand slam.

Game 1 v. Kentucky:

In the opening game, played on May 21, the ’Cats took on Kentucky and found themselves in a pitcher’s duel. Williams shined for the ’Cats, allowing just four hits, but the ’Cats ran into a fiery dealer on the other end in fifth-year right-hander Autumn Humes, who allowed just six hits and two runs.

Most of the offense came in the second inning, as Northwestern got on the board first with a moonshot down the left-field line by Maeve Nelson. In the ensuing half-inning, however, Kentucky showed off their potent offense and notched three runs of their own on small-ball, as poor fielding and choices by the ’Cats allowed their opposition to go up 3-1.

From there, it became a defensive showdown between Humes and Williams, as the two teams traded 1-2-3 innings and picked off several runners, preventing any offense for both teams. Finally, in the ninth-inning, Nikki Cuchran pulled through for the ’Cats, picking up a two-out, two-strike double and scoring a run off more small-ball from third-baseman Mac Dunlap, but that was all Northwestern could muster.

Mac Dunlap celebrates after a strikeout. Despite the best efforts of Dunlap late, the 'Cats could not complete the seventh-inning comeback. 

Game 2 v. Miami OH:

The following day, the ’Cats found themselves in a must-win game against one of the nation’s winningest teams: Miami of Ohio. With Williams back in the circle for the ’Cats, it almost looked like trouble early, when junior Allie Cummins whacked a home run to put the Redhawks up 1-0 early.

It was the only run Williams would allow all day, however, and the ’Cats quickly began to claw back in the second inning, when they loaded the bases for Dunlap with two outs. After an 11 pitch at-bat against senior right-hander Courtney Vierstra, Dunlap finally broke through, slapping a double into the left-center gap to put the ’Cats up early.

With Williams continuing to dominate, the ’Cats kept pushing the offense, and were able to break the game open in the fifth inning, when Cuchran notched her fifth hit in two days: a grand slam, to put Northwestern up 7-1 and put the game out of reach for the Redhawks.

In her final statline, Williams allowed just five hits while striking out nine batters, helping the 'Cats stay alive. Following the game, the team immediately began preparations for another game later that night against a familiar foe: Kentucky, who had lost to Notre Dame earlier that day.

Game 3 v. Kentucky:

With Williams having pitched back-to-back complete games, the ’Cats turned to first-year right-hander Lauren Boyd to win the critical game that would put Northwestern back in the winners’ bracket.

Behind their new starter, the ’Cats began punching hits and getting on base, breaking through early on another whack from Mac Dunlap, whose sacrifice fly put Northwestern up 1-0 in the second inning.

Unfortunately, Northwestern was not able to keep Kentucky’s potent offense off the basepaths forever. The blue and white Wildcats loaded the bases against Boyd and were able to notch two runs off a double from junior first-baseman Mallory Peyton to lead 2-1.

After locking down the third inning and escaping the fourth inning with no damage, the ’Cats turned to senior utility player Morgan Newport to help lock down the Kentucky offense. Unfortunately, the blue and white Wildcats were keen on opening the game up, and Peyton struck again, with a long moonshot down the left field line to make it 3-1.

Adding another run in the fifth and with 4-1 lead, Kentucky decided to turn once again to Autumn Humes, who, while allowing a run to score in the fifth inning, completely shut down the Northwestern offense, holding them to just one hit and allowing just one walk over three innings pitched. With nothing going offensively, the ’Cats turned again to Williams to try and lock down Kentucky, but she didn’t have the same magic, allowing four runs to score over just 2.1 innings. Kentucky would win the game 7-2, and move on to the regional championship against Notre Dame, where they would win and move on to the super regional round.

Season’s end:

With the loss to Kentucky, Northwestern finished the season with a 29-15 record, including a 12-15 record over their last 27 games. While the ’Cats were able to put together a fantastic season with amazing individual performances, they will now enter a long off-season with many questions to answer, as they’ll be losing key talent to graduation, including All-Big Ten First Team second baseman Rachel Lewis, Second Team utility player Morgan Newport, and team standouts Mac Dunlap and Emma Bartz.

While it’s a rough loss for the team, they will still return First Team catcher Jordyn Rudd and Danielle Williams, along with key members Skyler Shellmyer, Maeve Nelson, Sydney Supple and Nikki Cuchran. With longtime coaches Kate and Caryl Drohan returning for their 22nd season in 2022, it can be expected that the ’Cats will still be competitive in the Big Ten, and perhaps return back to the NCAA Tournament.

Here’s to the off-season.

Settle in folks, it'll be a long postseason.