Correction: A former version of this article stated that in Sunday's second game Mac Dunlap threw Kyra Snyder's hit to first base for a contentious out with runners advancing. Dunlap actually received a throw from Morgan Nelson mid-air and stepped on third base for the called out. NBN regrets the error.
How's that for payback?
After losing 2-1 to the Louisville Cardinals (35-23) on Saturday in the NCAA Division I Evanston Regional, the Northwestern Wildcats' softball team (47-11) stormed back on Sunday with 7-0 and 4-3 wins to advance in the tournament.
In a three-day mix of impressive wins, pitching duels, poor weather and even a controversial game-changing call, the Wildcats made the run through loser's bracket from Saturday night to Sunday night to make it one step closer to the Women's College World Series (WCWS).
Having won against Louisville three times in February, Northwestern had to bounce back from a loss in their fourth meeting and snag back-to-back wins against a team that threatened even first-year Wildcat ace Danielle Williams. Along the way the team also beat both regional opponents Detroit Mercy and Southern Illinois.
A season removed from falling to the Georgia Bulldogs in the Athens Regional final, the team will travel next weekend to Norman, Oklahoma to face the Sooners in a best-of-three super-regional showdown. The team that wins out will make it into the eight-team World Series.
The Sooners, ranked number one in the country, had their 41-win streak snapped by the Wisconsin Badgers on Sunday before rebounding to beat them in the follow-up game and advance. Northwestern played at Oklahoma twice in a regular season March tournament, losing 7-0 and 8-0. The team will have their work cut out for them if they plan on making the WCWS for the first time since 2007.
The first game on Sunday was pushed back over two hours due to rain, but once the weather cleared the Wildcats took over. Williams (31-6) struck out 10 batters and allowed zero runs in six innings, building on her impressive weekend resume without any stray home runs.
Though Louisville's pitchers, Megan Hensley and Taylor Roby, weren't as successful in shutting down Northwestern's offense as Danielle Watson (12-15) was on Saturday, the real weakness of the Cardinals were their errors. The 'Cats generated five of their seven runs off of errors, including four in the fourth inning after a two-out grounder that would've ended the frame couldn't get handled.
Game two saw Northwestern keep in Williams for a pitching duel against Louisville's Watson. For the first three innings, no hits were allowed as the two battled back-and-forth for the regional title. However, the two would end up combining for just 10 strikeouts and eight walks.
The Wildcats opened up scoring in the bottom of the fourth with a 2-RBI double from Morgan Newport. Newport had a fantastic weekend, going 8-for-16 with six RBI. Fellow middle-of-the-lineup batter Jordyn Rudd went 4-for-11 with four RBI throughout the regional.
The Cardinals responded with two runs in the fifth inning to tie up the game briefly, but left three on base to prevent a lead change. Right after Louisville's scoring, Northwestern took advantage of walks, hit-by-pitch batters and wild pitches with another 2-RBI hit, coming from Nikki Cuchran.
"At the time of the year, especially, you need to rely on your teammates and the people around you." said Cuchran about her performance over the weekend. "I didn't need to put all the pressure on myself."
A leadoff triple in the seventh inning by Celene Funke, who an inning earlier had to receive attention after an apparent injury while diving for a ball, was a scary moment for the Wildcats. Funke would score on a RBI groundout after the next batter, making the score 4-3 with just one out. But Northwestern didn't lose control, as Williams got the next two outs for the final win of the tournament and finish fourteen innings of work on the day.
"It's so exciting to be able to do this," said Williams after winning the regional. "To continue the season for our seniors is awesome."
"I thought we were a little tight at times at the plate yesterday, maybe a little passive" said Northwestern head coach Kate Drohan. "I had a completely different feel from our offense today."
The game wasn't without controversy, however. In the sixth inning with two runners on base and no outs, Louisville's Kyra Snyder hit toward Morgan Nelson, who threw the ball to Mac Dunlap. Dunlap appeared to have jumped off third base while Maddy Newman slide to the bag, but the call by the home plate umpire was an out.
Louisville head coach Holly Aprile was furious at the call and yelled at the umpire, but it was to no avail. The next two Louisville batters struck out and grounded out, and the inning was over without any runs to show. Had the call been that Newman was safe, the ability of the Cardinals to score would've been greatly enhanced.
On Saturday Northwestern struggled to find much of an offensive pulse against Louisville’s Watson, as the two teams dueled through a three-hour rain delay to a 2-1 Cardinal win. Williams had a strong 10-strikeout, no-walk outing that was marred by giving up two crucial lead-off home runs in the second and seventh innings.
Watson allowed just four hits but ran into some trouble in the first. Three walks brought about a two-out, bases-loaded opportunity for Northwestern. But she escaped with a two-out strikeout from Newport. That missed moment would linger in memory while the Wildcats had trouble generating offense.
Despite falling into a two-out hole in the seventh inning, the Wildcats wouldn’t go down with a fight. Morgan Nelson ended up drawing a walk, and Maeve Nelson hit a left-field double for the RBI. But Cuchran, who had the chance to tie or win the game at the plate, hit to shortstop and couldn’t beat out the throw to first.
Cats and dogs
Playing in gritty conditions, the Wildcats took out Southern Illinois (34-15) 8-1 to survive to Sunday. The game started around 9:30 p.m. local time and ended minutes past midnight. Outside was cold and windy, with some fog regularly gathered in the outfield.
Kenna Wilkey (11-2) pitched a complete game for Northwestern, allowing five hits and striking out three. She had a somewhat messy game, with four wild pitches and seven allowed walks, but the Salukis scored just one run while stranding 10 baserunners. Wilkey also smacked a huge grand slam in the seventh inning, her second homer of the weekend, to all but end Southern Illinois' season. Newport, who went 4-for-4 in the game, had 3 RBI and a homer.
The Salukis’ Brianna Jones (23-11), in her final collegiate game, threw over six innings and allowed 12 hits and four walks with six strikeouts. She also allowed six extra-base hits to a Northwestern offense that had been frustrated by Louisville just hours earlier.
In a dominant start to the tournament, the Wildcats combined for 15 runs in back-to-back innings as they run-ruled Detroit Mercy (31-28) 15-1 on Friday. The team combined for 10 hits, two doubles, three home runs and 10 walks for an astounding amount of offensive production.
The Titans had a hit and unearned run in the first inning, following a hit-by-pitch batter and pair of defensive mistakes by Rudd and Morgan Nelson. Their lead wouldn't last long, though, once some momentum got going for Northwestern. Five Wildcats multi-RBI performances, and Rudd, Williams and Wilkey all had their home runs in the third inning.
Williams gave up just one more single after the first inning while walking three and striking out six. Wilkey followed with four strikeouts of her own. After the Titans failed to score a run in the top of the fifth inning, the run-rule applied and the Wildcats got the shortened win.
Game stats and details provided by StatMonitr and SIDEARM Sports