Correction and update as of 8:47 CDT: The NCAA Division I softball tournament selection show was Sunday, not Monday. The No. 16 Wildcats will officially be hosting one of the 16 regionals, with a group featuring Louisville, Southern Illinois and Detroit Mercy.
Within Northwestern softball’s rosy season, marked with impressive wins and national rankings, there was a thorn waiting to pierce Wildcat dreams.
It was not an unfamiliar thorn, but it seemed possible to strip at. Though the ’Cats dealt first blood against the Minnesota Golden Gophers at the beginning of three-game series before the Big Ten Tournament, that thorn was too sharp to remove.
The Wildcats were a weekend removed from dropping the last two games in that frustrating series, when they faced the Gophers again in the semifinals of the tournament on Saturday after beating the hosting No. 7 Indiana Hoosiers (36-21) 2-0 on Friday.
But just like the matches before, Minnesota would have their way. A year after they defeated Northwestern in the championship game for their third-straight tournament title, the No. 3 Gophers (41-12) took out the No. 2 Wildcats (43-10) again in a 4-0 contest before losing to No. 1 Michigan (43-11) in the championship 3-2 . Northwestern will wait and see which group they are selected for in the NCAA Division I regionals.
Semifinals vs. Minnesota
Though the Wildcats in the semifinals matched the hitting output of their three-day series against Minnesota (four hits), it didn’t give them what they wanted. Gopher ace Amber Fiser (26-7) threw a convincing complete game and tied a career-high with 13 strikeouts.
Northwestern had just one walk, and twice ended the frame with the rare opportunity of runners on first and second. The first three Wildcat batters in the lineup notably struggled against both Fiser and Indiana: the capable trio of Rachel Lewis, Morgan Nelson and Maeve Nelson went a combined 1-and-16 during the tournament. Nikki Cuchran and Jordyn Rudd had six of eight of the team’s tournament hits.
Kaley Winegarner (5-2) got the start against the Gophers, but quickly ran into trouble. Two home runs by the second inning, courtesy of Minnesota’s Hope Brandner and Katelyn Kemmetmueller, made the score 3-0. After Winegarner gave up a fourth hit, she was replaced in the circle with Morgan Newport.
Newport, who pitched a no-hitter in the tournament last year but has played most of the season at right field, performed well with the help of defensive plays by third basewoman Mac Dunlap and second basewoman Lewis. Even Newport herself made plays on the move: in the fifth inning she grabbed a grounder to first and made a tough barehanded toss to first basewoman Lily Novak for the out.
But even that didn’t last for long. In the sixth inning Newport gave up her second hit of the game to Natalie DenHartog. A few plays later DenHartog scored from second due to a missed grounder by Dunlap to make it 4-0. Big Ten Freshman of the Year Danielle Williams, who pitched a complete game against Indiana the day prior, was put on the mound after the run to finish the game.
Though Williams retired all four batters she saw, the game was all but over. Northwestern’s three batters came and went in the bottom of the seventh to seal the game for Minnesota. After a successful Big Ten season, the Wildcats were left without the trophy they desired.
Second Round vs. Indiana
Against the Hoosiers, Williams (28-5) dazzled with a nine-strikeout showing. She allowed just one hit and one walk, both coming in the first two innings. Additionally, the first-year faced the minimum 21 batters. Walked batter Taylor Lambert was called out trying to steal, and Paige Chitwood, who pinch ran for Katie Lacefield off a single, was forced out in a double play created by Dunlap.
While Williams shined on the mound and outperformed Indiana’s Tara Trainer (26-11) and Emily Goodin, the Wildcat’s defense also made strong plays. Two batters before the second-inning double play, Sklyer Shellmyer made an impressive outstretched catch on the move to rob an extra-base hit. Later in the fifth, Lewis locked down a grounder in danger of heading to the outfield, and got the throw in to Novak on time for the out.
“We attacked the hitters and my defense was there behind me,” said Williams about Friday’s game. “My confidence was there because of my team.”
Maeve Nelson, who batted into a fielder’s choice, scored the first run in the third inning off of consecutive singles by Cuchran and Rudd. Morgan Nelson was walked in the fifth before a sacrifice fly by Maeve and rerouted RBI single from Cuchran brought her home. In total Northwestern’s offense had four hits and eight walks. While the team stranded 10 baserunners, it was much prefer to Indiana’s zero, reflecting the Hoosiers’ lack of any scoring chances on Friday.