After a rough opening weekend, No. 21 Northwestern softball appeared to have another difficult test in front of them.
With the Wildcats facing two teams ranked by the USA Today / NFCA Division I Top 25 Coaches Poll and another receiving votes, it seemed that the St. Pete Clearwater Elite Invitational in Florida would be a clear challenge of their abilities. And though the team didn't shock many by winning two of their four games, the results themselves were surprising.
Northwestern's best performance of the invitational came against the fifth-ranked team in the country, while they played two other games close (winning and losing one each). Even in their worst result of the weekend, they held a brief two-run lead over their opponent before eventually falling.
While the weekend wasn't a superb showing from the Wildcats (4-5), picking up two victories is helpful for the team's cause nonetheless. The road ahead features a difficult slate of opponents at the Mary Nutter Classic, including Washington, Florida and Oregon. It will be another testing ground for the team in their road to repeat — and exceed — last season's accomplishments.
No. 15 Georgia 8, No. 21 Northwestern 3
Despite a three-run third inning to take an early two-run lead, Northwestern simply wasn’t able to keep up with the scoring. No. 15 Georgia (8-3) responded with seven unanswered runs throughout the rest of the game, turning a 3-1 Wildcat lead into an 8-3 Bulldog win.
Northwestern’s pitching staff couldn’t contain Georgia’s explosive hitters, as what started as a junior Kenna Wilkey start turned into a shuffle: Danielle Williams, Morgan Newport, and Sydney Supple were all rotated into the game. Even though the sophomore Williams looked to be turning the tide in the Wildcats’ favor, a two-run triple given up to Jordan Doggett put the Bulldogs in front, and they wouldn’t let go of their lead. Georgia hit six extra-base hits against the ’Cats: a double, two triples, and three home runs.
Northwestern mustered just five hits during the game, three of which came during the third inning. Nikki Cuchran followed up an early bases-loaded situation with a two-RBI double, and Jordyn Rudd hit a sacrifice fly to bring in the Wildcats’ third — but final — run. Savana Sikes led the way for Georgia with two hits and three RBIs, including a solo homer in the in the fourth inning that would prove foreboding for the ’Cats.
No. 21 Northwestern 5, Kansas 4
No. 21 Northwestern 6, No. 5 Florida State 2
Two big innings — one against Kansas, one against Florida State — from Northwestern lifted them to consecutive victories in the middle of their invitational schedule. Though the Wildcats caught both teams on downturns, they did well by clawing back from small deficits and earning a pair of wins.
The Kansas Jayhawks (2-8) had a 4-2 lead over the ’Cats heading into the fifth inning, with Rachel Lewis’ two-run homer being Northwestern’s main bright spot at the plate. First-year pitcher Sydney Supple gave up one earned run off of a homer and five hits in just over three innings pitched, but Kansas’ other runs were all scored following fielding errors by Northwestern. Fortunately for the Wildcats, Kansas couldn’t utilize every opportunity, as 11 Jayhawks were left on base during the game.
Graduate pitcher Kaley Winegarner took over for Supple midway through the game and turned out a good performance, allowing only two hits — though walking three batters — and striking out six Jayhawks. And in the fifth inning, Northwestern’s lineup utilized a mix of hits, sacrifice flies, and a hit-by-pitch to put together three runs. Jordyn Rudd, Maeve Nelson, and Morgan Newport each had an RBI to put the Wildcats in front, and Winegarner gave up zero runs to close out the game.
While No. 5 Florida State (7-4) entered their afternoon game against Northwestern having lost two games in a row — one each to No. 1 Washington and No. 14 Minnesota — the previous weekend they had dominated a schedule that included two matchups against then–No. 2 Alabama. Naturally the Wildcats put up their star pitcher Williams to face off against the Seminoles, and despite some early season struggles that put her ERA at 5.73 before the game, she didn’t disappoint in the quest for the team’s first ranked win of the season.
Allowing two hits and four walks while striking out 11, Danielle Williams had a solid return to form in her complete-game effort. The only earned run she allowed was a second-inning solo homer by Florida State’s Cassidy Davis, while the other Seminoles score was due to a single to center field being mishandled by Northwestern’s Skyler Shellmyer, allowing Elizabeth Mason to reach home plate from first base.
The Wildcats had just two hits heading into the fifth inning, but Florida State would soon begin to unravel. Kenna Wilkey’s home run as the first batter up put Northwestern within one, and a double by Gracie Huff right after threatened to continue the momentum (she would end up getting caught stealing third, and no more runs would be scored during the frame).
The sixth inning brought the real pain. Seminoles’ pitcher Caylan Arnold, who had been in the game up to that point, was swapped out for Brianna Enter. Florida States’ attempt to close out the game, however, didn’t go as planned: a hit-by-pitch and walk put two Wildcat runners on base quickly, and Enter was removed for Kathryn Sandercock.
But the ball had already been set in motion: four hits led to five runs, and Northwestern took a late 6-2 lead that secured their come-from-behind victory of the day. Newport’s 2-RBI single gave the Wildcats the lead in the inning, while Rachel Lewis’ three-run double not long after put the team well ahead of Florida State.
Virginia Tech 6, No. 21 Northwestern 5 (8 inn.)
A wild fourth inning — in which both teams combined for eight runs — accounted for most of the scoring in a game that ended in heartbreaking fashion for Northwestern. Due to a tiebreaker rule that places a runner from each team at second base to start an extra-inning half, a Virginia Tech (7-3) bunt and sacrifice fly allowed Kelsey Bennett to score. The Wildcats, meanwhile, were unable to respond and bring Gracie Huff home, giving them their fifth loss of the season.
Northwestern struck first on the board, as Skyler Shellmyer distracted the Hokies' infielders by attempting to steal second base, allowing Rachel Lewis on third to run to the home plate. But Virginia Tech punched holes through the Wildcats' pitchers in the fourth, beginning with starter Danielle Williams. A walk and hit-by-pitch together sent two Hokies on base, and a ground-rule double with no outs tied the score and put two runners in scoring position.
Kaley Winegarner replaced Williams and managed to secure two strikeouts in succession. But another walk and hit-by-pitch sequence sent Virginia Tech up 2-1, loading the bases and forcing Winegarner out for Morgan Newport. Two more hits would bring in three more runs, and suddenly a 1-0 Northwestern lead turned into a 5-1 deficit.
However, the same inning would see a comeback surge. With two outs and a retired lineup staring them in the face, Northwestern began applying the pressure. Williams, Huff, and Lewis all reached base, causing a Shellymer walk and Jordyn Rudd single to score three runs. Then in the sixth, a Rudd sacrifice fly brought Lewis home yet again to even the field at 6. Unfortunately for the ’Cats, their rally fell short in extras.
Game stats and details collected from StatBroadcast.