The ’Cats are out of the bag – and back on the field.

Northwestern Softball (2-2, 0-0 B1G) opened its much-anticipated 2023 season last weekend at the NFCA Leadoff Challenge in Clearwater, Florida.

Most of the anticipation comes from the Wildcats’ 2022 campaign, which was easily one of the best the program has ever had. The team went 45-13 and 19-4 in the Big Ten, winning the regular season conference championship for the first time since 2008 and making it all the way to the semifinals of the conference tournament. The season didn’t stop there. Northwestern hosted an NCAA regional, where they dominated, and beat Arizona State in a three-game thriller at the NCAA Super Regional.

The dream season would lose its steam in the Women’s College World Series, where NU would fall to Oklahoma and UCLA, but there were plenty of incredible memories to be had and plenty of reason to believe in what the future could bring to Evanston.

To build on the hype, the team also brings back much of the talent that made last year’s run possible. While Rachel Lewis, who was arguably the team’s best hitter in 2022, did leave, Northwestern brings back most of last year’s roster. Most notably, fourth-years Danielle Williams, Jordan Rudd, Maeve Nelson, Skylar Shellmyer and Nikki Cuchran all decided to return for one more season. To not only return so much talent, but so much experienced talent is a surefire recipe for success in 2023.

While the ’Cats may have lost their best hitter from the 2022 season, they retained their top arm. Danielle Williams headlines the list of names returning to the team, and is coming off of a stellar season. Williams was far and away the top Wildcat pitcher last year. She pitched 251 innings, while no other NU player threw over 54. Batters facing her hit just .195, and Williams racked up 333 strikeouts, which was third most in the entire country. Williams was named as the Big Ten Pitcher of the year award for her performance, and was also named a first team All-American. Williams will be the first choice in the circle for Northwestern yet again this year, and there are few pitchers in the country that inspire more confidence than No. 24.

Catching Williams’ pitches last year was Jordan Rudd, and she has a resume that rivals that of the star pitcher. Rudd was one of the best hitters on the squad last year, as she sported the team’s highest batting average at .370 and the most doubles on the team with 11. Yet offense isn’t even the most outstanding part of Rudd’s game. Rudd was the best defensive catcher in college softball last year. She was named as Softball America’s Defensive Player of the Year, and won the 2022 Gold Glove award for catchers. She led the team in putouts last year with 415, and she’ll be back at it again behind the plate this season.

The Wildcats drew mixed results at last weekend’s games. The first day of the challenge was incredibly promising, opening with a 3-run victory over South Alabama, and a milestone, come-from-behind upset over No. 6 Texas. The following days didn’t go nearly as well, as they lost to Missouri 6-1 and No. 13 Tennessee 6-0. The schedule doesn’t get much easier, as Northwestern takes on No. 7 Clemson in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge this weekend.

This Northwestern Softball team will be (and already has been) tested, but they have all the tools to make the grade.

Thumbnail image by Brandi Simpson / North by Northwestern