Northwestern celebrates a run during a 2021 game. In their first series of the 2022 season, the 'Cats posted a 4-1 record, including a top 25 win over Liberty. Photo by Brandi Simpson / North by Northwestern

One of the most popular terms used to describe Florida is “snowbirds.” Often referring to retired folks, the term means those who live North most of the year, but once the weather turns cold they flock down to Florida to relax and enjoy themselves in the warm sunshine, away from their old roosts and away from any work that may be waiting for them back at home.

For Northwestern softball (4-1, 0-0 B1G), there was no word of snowbirds for their first series, as they put in the work to post four wins and a tight loss to one of the top teams in the nation. Taking on teams like No. 13 Virginia Tech and No. 24 Liberty, the ’Cats saw just how good their team could be this season, marked by fantastic offensive performances and some surprises in the pitching circle.

In the series, the ’Cats were led by senior second baseman Rachel Lewis, who batted in five runs, stole five bases and posted a .632 on-base percentage – good enough to be named Big Ten Player of the Week – and senior catcher Jordyn Rudd, who led all Big Ten players with nine runs batted in and posted a .769 slugging percentage.

Game 1: UConn

In their first game of the season, the ’Cats dominated the Huskies 8-0, and Northwestern enjoyed the best of both worlds, as they saw a dominant pitching performance from senior pitcher Danielle Williams and fantastic offensive production from the rest of the squad. In her first start of the season, Williams was almost completely untouchable, striking out eight batters and allowing just two runs over five innings of work.

On the other side, the Wildcat offense got going early with a couple runs picked up off small-ball – with Rudd and senior outfielder Skyler Shellmyer picking up some nice hits to put the team up early – but the game was cracked wide open in the fourth inning, when Lewis came to the plate with two outs and smacked a long grand slam to put the ’Cats up big.

After that, the ’Cats just kept scoring until the run rule – effectively the “mercy rule,” meaning one team has scored enough to put the game out of reach – was finally called in the fifth inning, giving Northwestern their first win of the season; perhaps a taste of what was to come.

Game 2: No. 13 Virginia Tech

In a top-25 matchup, the ’Cats saw a decent performance from an unlikely suspect, and an offense that came up just short against one of the better teams in the country, losing 3-2 against No. 13 Virginia Tech.

The story of the game was senior pitcher Lauren Dvorak. Dvorak, who saw just two appearances in the 2021 season, pitched well in the first true test of her collegiate career, pitching 5.2 innings and giving up just six hits to one of the more potent offenses in the country. While the ’Cats did go down 3-1 in the third inning, Dvorak was able to lock down the Hokies into the later innings, keeping the team close in a tight loss with the defense locking down around her.

Meanwhile, the Wildcat offense struggled to get on the board against Virginia Tech senior pitcher Keely Rochard, who allowed just three hits and two runs to be scored. Shellmyer and Lewis each scored runs on small-ball play – with Shellmyer quickly rounding the bases in the first after a crucial error by the Virginia Tech team – but it seemed as though Rochard was completely fooling the Northwestern bats, as she whiffed a whopping 15 batters in her victory.

Despite the tough loss, Northwestern had plenty to celebrate, as their defense held up and pushed one of the better teams in the country without their best pitcher in the circle. All eyes were then turned to the next doubleheader.

Game 3: Akron

With the ’Cats taking on No. 24 Liberty later in the day, head coaches Kate and Caryl Drohan had a difficult decision to make: who could pitch against Akron, if they needed Williams for the late, ranked game? Luckily, the team dominated against the Zips, winning the game 11-2.

Once again, however, the story remained to be Dvorak. While sophomore Lauren Boyd did start the game for the ’Cats, Dvorak took over in the third inning and never left the circle, pitching five innings of relief and holding strong, allowing just four hits.

Meanwhile, the ’Cats just absolutely dominated offensively; several players in the top of the lineup picked up multiple hits, and players like Rudd and Shellmyer scored a couple runs down the stretch. The hero in this game, however, was first-year designated hitter Ayana Lindsey, who picked up three hits in four at-bats in her first collegiate start, knocking in one run and scoring two.

The ’Cats were dominant in this one, but the last true test still remained: Liberty.

Game 4: No. 24 Liberty

There’s no need to dramatize this any further: the ’Cats once again showed how dominant this team could be, beating the ranked Flames 8-2 in an important win. Williams shined once again, going a full seven innings and striking out 12 batters, while allowing just four hits.

Meanwhile, Northwestern came out of the gate swinging, scoring four runs in the first inning alone: Rudd batted in two to chase the Liberty starting pitcher out of the game, and Cuchran followed her with a nice single up the middle to break the game open early.

Lewis added an RBI to her weekend in the fourth and helped the ’Cats push the lead to seven, but the four runs turned out to be the only offense Northwestern would need, as Liberty only got on the board after a sixth-inning home run by senior designated hitter Lou Allan. In an effort that saw a dominant offense take over in the first, and a steadfast pitching performance by Williams, the ’Cats were encouraged in their quest to take on the top teams.

They still had one more game to play, however.

Game 5: Eastern Kentucky

Similar to the last game, the ’Cats got their offense cooking early, and the pitching took them the rest of the way home, as they beat Eastern Kentucky 4-0 in the final game of the Round Robin.

Dvorak started the game for the ’Cats, posting three innings of work and allowing just one hit, and Williams finished the job with four innings and five strikeouts. While not the most dominant of performances, it finished the series and pushed the ’Cats to 4-1 on the season.

Meanwhile, Rudd capped off her stellar weekend with yet another amazing performance in the first inning, whacking another double down the line to put the ’Cats up 2-0 early. After a Maeve Nelson home run in the third inning, the ’Cats kept pushing the pace – scoring another run in the fifth inning – but it was enough to cap off the series with a nice, quiet yet still dominant, win.

What’s next?

While the game was a nice warmup, the toughest challenge of the season lies ahead. The ’Cats will head back to Florida this weekend to play in the SPC Elite Invitational, a tournament – as the name would suggest – with some of the best teams in the country. After opening against Texas Tech, the ’Cats will have three top-25 matchups in a row, including No. 3 UCLA on Friday morning, No. 15 Clemson on Saturday, and No. 7 Oklahoma State on Sunday.

The good news, however, is the Wildcat offense is clicking – with Rudd and Lewis, in particular, absolutely destroying pitches – and Northwestern might have the senior pitching duo they need in Dvorak and Williams. It’ll be a fun weekend to watch, especially to escape from the snow.

Despite being in Florida, there’s still work to be done.