Not exactly the opening weekend expected from the No. 14 team in the country.
Northwestern softball (2-3) started off the season at the Kajikawa Classic in Tempe, Arizona with matchups against Utah, Seattle, Tennessee, Arizona State, and Portland State from Friday to Sunday. With high expectations surrounding the program heading into 2020 — due to a high-ranked recruiting class, star sophomores, and an mostly-unchanged roster — the tournament may have tempered them for now.
After some tough losses to both fellow ranked-teams and an unranked opponent, as well as two wins that weren't awe-inspiring (including one that was closer than it should've been), the Wildcats will need to regroup and move past a disappointing start. They're capable of achieving much this season, and an early disappointment isn't necessarily indicative of future troubles.
Utah 3, No. 14 Northwestern 2
No. 14 Northwestern 1, Seattle 0
Friday’s first matchup against unranked Utah went about as poorly as it could have offensively. Northwestern collected five total hits in 26 at-bats with eight strikeouts. They scored two runs – only one of which was earned – and went 0-for-3 with runners in scoring position.
Defensively, the ’Cats played a clean game – committing no errors – and besides one inning, star sophomore pitcher Danielle Williams (0-2, 5.84 ERA) pitched a solid game with six strikeouts and just one walk. Unfortunately, it was that one inning that brought Northwestern’s demise. Utah scored three runs in the sixth, all from an Ellessa Bonstrom home run, and the Wildcats never matched it.
The Wildcats took on Seattle University’s Redhawks later that day, and they managed to squeeze out a win despite their continued offensive struggles. The one exception was Williams, who knocked two hits including a double and became the only player with more than one hit that day.
Fortunately, junior Kenna Wilkey (1-1, 4.05 ERA) stepped up in the circle and finished a complete game, two-hit shutout with six strikeouts. Her gem was enough to keep the ’Cats on top despite the offense providing only one run of support. The Redhawks got Wilkey to falter slightly in the bottom of the seventh, but the Wildcat hurler slammed the door to complete her two-hitter.
No. 12 Tennessee 6, No. 14 Northwestern 3
No. 22 Arizona State 6, No. 14 Northwestern 5
Facing two other ranked teams on Saturday, the Wildcats fell short in their bid to make up for their disappointing Friday results. In a pair of losses to No. 12 Tennessee and No. 22 Arizona State, Northwestern pitchers threw more combined strikeouts (14) and allowed fewer walks (1) than their opponents (12 and 7, respectively). However, the Volunteers and Sun Devils both won the battle that matters most — runs scored — and made sure that the ’Cats will drop to be an unranked team in the next USA Today/NFCA Coaches poll.
In Northwestern’s first game of the day, Williams started on the pitcher’s mound, while Tennessee brought in pitcher Callie Turner. Though the Wildcats battled the Volunteers close, tying up the score at 2 in the top of the fifth inning, the game slipped from their grasp after Williams gave up a two-out, three-run homer to Kaili Phillips.
Senior Morgan Newport (0-0, ERA) took over for Williams soon after, but the ’Cats couldn’t respond in time. Though sophomore Maeve Nelson capitalized on a fielding error to reach home with two outs in the seventh and final inning, Turner closed the game out for Tennessee in a strong seven-inning performance. Sophomore Jordyn Rudd went 2-for-4 with the Wildcats’ fifth-inning RBI, while first-year Angela Zedak singled in the first inning to bring in the game’s opening run.
In the next game, Wilkey got the start against Arizona State’s Cielo Meza in a match that turned out to be a home run contest. Northwestern battled back-and-forth with the Sun Devils, holding two-run leads on two separate occasions before losing them both times. Rachel Lewis and Morgan Newport (who led Northwestern with 2 RBI) each homered to bring in three of the Wildcats’ four early runs, but two Arizona State solo shots in the second inning — combined with a run in both the fourth and fifth — leveled the score.
Lewis made an impact again in the sixth inning following a walk against Sun Devil pitcher Madison Preston, who took over in the fifth. The junior stole second base during Nelson's plate appearance, and would be brought home on an RBI single by the sophomore.
But despite the strong effort, Northwestern's lead wouldn't hold: a one-out single in the game's seventh inning by Arizona State's Yannira Acuña put a runner on the bases, and Kindra Hackbarth promptly send the Wildcats home with a game-ending two-run homer. It was the match-up's fifth home run, and its most important and devastating.
No. 14 Northwestern 8, Portland State 3
Thankfully, the Wildcats finished off the weekend strong by defeating Portland State. Graduate player Kaley Winegarner (1-0, 0 ERA), a seasoned pitcher who has seen game time since 2016, got the final start of the tournament and dueled the Vikings' Marisol Gaona.
Northwestern scored runs in just two innings, but it was enough: a Mac Dunlap 2-RBI double in the second put the ’Cats up 2-0, and two home runs kickstarted a 6-run third. An unearned Portland State run in between provided little momentum the rest of the way for the Vikings until the seventh inning. Winegarner allowed zero runs, giving up four hits and striking out four in her appearance.
First-year Sydney Supple took over for Winegarner in the fifth inning, and held down the fort for two innings until Lauren Dvorak took the mound in the seventh. Things didn't go smoothly, however, and the sophomore had a rough outing by allowing four hits, one walk, and two runs while recording just one out. Thankfully, Williams came in and shut down the next two batters to preserve the Wildcats' win.
Dunlap led batters against Portland State with 3 RBI on 1-for-2 hitting and a sacrifice fly, while Rudd brought in two more RBI. Lewis went 3-for-4 with an RBI in a strong effort from the leadoff spot.
The Wildcats will play next weekend in the St. Pete/Clearwater Elite Invitational, where they will face Georgia (5-0), Kansas (1-4), Florida State (5-0), and Virginia Tech (4-1). Three of the four teams (all but Kansas) were ranked or received votes in the preseason USA Today/NFCA Coaches poll, and will be tough opponents for Northwestern if the ’Cats are to bounce back from the Kajikawa Classic.
Game stats and details collected from StatBroadcast and SideArm Stats