Article corrected on May 10: Minnesota is the three-time defending Big Ten tournament champion, not two-time
It was a run Wildcat fans (hopefully) won't soon forget.
Northwestern softball had a 19-game winning streak heading into the past weekend's series at Minnesota. The 'Cats went an entire month (April) undefeated, and boasted a perfect conference record. In interviews, of course, the team didn't dwell too much on those achievements, but focused on the next challenge ahead.
They'll have to do some dissection, however, of their three-day performance against the Golden Gophers if they plan to win the upcoming Big Ten Tournament.
The Wildcats (42-9, 21-2 Big Ten) finally met a roadblock in the Gophers (39-11, 20-2 Big Ten) and suffered their first two conference losses (and first consecutive losses) of the season.
Though Northwestern extended their streak on Friday by winning a brilliant pitching duel, on Saturday and Sunday they were unable to keep up with a Minnesota team who posed a bigger in-conference threat than any the team had previously faced.
The 'Cats' two losses dropped them below Michigan (40-11, 22-1 Big Ten) in the conference standings, giving them the No. 2 seed in the Big Ten Softball Tournament starting on May 9. Though Northwestern's win on Friday secured them a top-2 seed above Minnesota, the Wolverines' sweep of weaker Maryland (20-31, 4-19 Big Ten), took advantage of the Wildcats' rocky weekend.
Danielle Williams (27-5, 1.46 ERA) pitched lights-out on Friday and was centrally responsible for Northwestern's thrilling 1-0 win. She gave up just one hit and two walks, while striking out 13.
However, the star first-year couldn't pick up from where she left off on Saturday. Whether it was due to fatigue, familiarity or a combination of the two, Williams gave up three runs, including two off a home run, and five hits in two innings before being pulled for Kenna Wilkey (10-2, 2.92 ERA). Wilkey also struggled to subdue Minnesota in an 8-0, five-inning loss that ended with Morgan Nelson dropping a fly ball in left field, allowing two runs in.
Williams started once again on Sunday, but the game played to a similar tune. She allowed four hits and four runs by the third inning before Kaley Winegarner (5-1 2.62 ERA) stepped in. The Gophers cruised by to a 4-0 win that gave Michigan the sole spot atop the conference.
Northwestern's productive offense fell flat against Minnesota, hitting just four times during the weekend. Amber Fiser (25-7, 1.25 ERA) and Sydney Smith (12-4, 2.42 ERA) took control during the series. Fiser threw two complete games on Friday and Sunday, and allowed a total of just three hits and three walks, while striking out 18. Smith and Fiser combined for a five-inning, one-hit shutout on Saturday.
Fiser did have a notable mistake, during the first game. She threw a wild pitch that scored Maeve Nelson from third base for the game's only run. It was also the only time the Wildcats would cross home plate against the Gophers.
Though the Big Ten Tournament is approaching quickly, Northwestern will have an extra day of rest. As the second seed, the team will play on Friday against the winner of host Indiana versus Penn State. If the 'Cats want to win the tournament for the first time since 2008, they'll probably have to get past three-time defending champion Minnesota with adjustments on-hand.