Story updated April 15 to include SIDEARM Sports credit
Morgan Nelson claims she called it.
First baseman Lily Novak was stepping up to the plate in the bottom of the tenth inning. Tied at four runs, Northwestern was going to the distance with a Wisconsin team desperate to pick up a win against the 'Cats.
"Before the pitch, I said 'Lily's going to go yard on this,'" declared the senior left fielder.
And so Novak did, sending a definitive statement to the Badgers with a walk-off home run. The purple-clad fans in the bleachers cheered not only because Northwestern swept Wisconsin, but also because the chilly, six-hour doubleheader had finally ended.
The Wildcats (33-7, 12-0 Big Ten) defeated the Badgers (30-8, 7-5 Big Ten) in a three-game series spanning two days due to Sunday's inclement weather. The team won on Friday 4-1, and took both games in the Saturday doubleheader by scores of 8-5 and 5-4. Wisconsin was ranked #25 in the nation by USA Today/NFCA heading into the weekend, while Northwestern was an unofficial #26 in the "receiving votes" section. Now, the 'Cats now have sole possession of the first spot in the Big Ten standings after Michigan, the only other conference-perfect team, lost to Ohio State on Saturday.
Pitcher Danielle Williams, who has so far won three Big Ten Pitcher of the Week and four Big Ten Freshman of the Week awards, pitched two complete games against Wisconsin with a total of 290 pitches on Friday and Saturday, showcasing both her longevity and value to the team.
"I think there were some points today where she just had to challenge the hitters and trust her defense," said head coach Kate Drohan after the doubleheader, "and that's what I'm most pleased with."
On Friday Williams gave up just four hits to the Badgers while striking out nine, with the sole allowed run coming from a homer by Jolie Fish. Though Northwestern as a team mustered only three hits, it was enough thanks to some stolen bases by Emma Bartz and Jordyn Rudd in the second inning and a Wisconsin fielding error in the fifth.
She had a shakier start during the second game of the doubleheader, giving up three hits in the top of the third inning and escaping with just one run allowed and the bases loaded. The Badgers would again score one run in the fourth, fifth and sixth innings to slowly eat away at the Wildcat's three-run lead earned in the bottom of the third. But Williams ultimately prevailed once again thanks to strong pitching late in the game and finished with 12 strikeouts.
Outside of Williams, the entire pitching staff was used for the first game of Saturday. Kenna Wilkey started but was forced out early due to a 4-0 surge by the Badgers. Kaley Winegarner replaced her, and did a fine job for three innings before Morgan Newport took over and shut down the opposing batters.
"The neat thing about our pitching staff is, they're so unique, and they bring something new to the field," said Drohan.
To the fences
Lily Novak's game-winning homer brought Northwestern's long ball count to six on the series, all coming on Saturday. Rachel Lewis hit two homers, while Maeve Nelson, Morgan Nelson and Morgan Newport all contributed one. Lewis leads the team with 13 total home runs, five ahead of second-place Maeve Nelson. This wide margin is a testament to Lewis' power, as she actually has a worse hitting percentage at the leadoff spot this season than last (.233% compared to .351 % when she was second in the lineup behind Sabrina Rabin). Additionally, Maeve Nelson joined Lewis this season as a member of the Sharon J. Drysdale Roof Club by slamming a ball on to the top of the new McGaw Memorial Hall.
As a team, Northwestern has now hit 41 home runs this season. Wisconsin has also been a big slugging threat in 2019. This weekend the Badgers hit five homers to bring their current season total to 50, while their pitching has now allowed 15. Credit the 'Cats for punishing Wisconsin's pitchers in an area that they haven't been exposed in this season.
In the Wildcat's seven losses this season, the team has given up 12 home runs (including seven total in two defeats to Oklahoma) while hitting only three of their own. If the team can come out swinging like they did this weekend against threatening teams for the rest of the season, then they will be a force to be reckoned with.
The winning 'Cats
Beyond their dominating 12-0 record in conference, Northwestern has won 11 straight games and 16 of their last 17 games dating back to their mid-season tournament at Oklahoma in early March. They've outscored opponents 107-31 since then, with ten of those allowed runs coming from Wisconsin. Their sole loss during that run came to DePaul, where they squandered a 5-1 lead in the sixth inning to lose 9-7.
With their in-conference success, the big question mark for Northwestern is if they can continue to compete with the top conference teams. While sweeping Wisconsin is certainly is proof of their mettle, the Badgers played them close and were definitely their biggest challenge so far in the Big Ten. The Wildcat's previous conference games came against Rutgers, Iowa and Nebraska, who are currently a combined 10-17 in Big Ten games not involving NU.
The team's ultimate test before the Big Ten Tournament will be against reigning tournament champion Minnesota, who they play a week prior. The Gophers are 10-1 in conference play, and taking at least 2 of 3 games from them would be a massive confidence boost heading into the postseason. Northwestern could very well become the team to beat, whether they want that target on their back or not.