When Northwestern softball (18-6, 3rd in B1G) began their series against Minnesota (20-4, 1st in B1G), it was seen as the first true test for the upstart squad. The ’Cats, who had posted an 18-2 record over their first 20 games and were beginning to earn nods from the national stage, were about to face their first “contending” opponent. It was their first opponent sitting in the top five of the Big Ten. The four-game series was a chance for the ’Cats to prove their dominance, show their strength and prove all their praisers right.
Unfortunately, it didn’t exactly go according to plan.
Minnesota swept the series this past weekend, winning all four games by scores of 3-2 (ten innings), 6-2, 2-1 (eight innings) and 10-4. Northwestern’s offense, who had dominated opponents in the batter’s box and scored hundreds of runs, went uncharacteristically cold against the Golden Gophers- a factor that would doom the ’Cats in the series.
Kicking off the first game on April 9, Northwestern saw the continued dominance of star junior pitcher Danielle Williams, who struck out 10 batters in 5.2 innings of work and allowed just two runs. Graduate pitcher and utility player Morgan Newport also turned in a fantastic performance, including a two-run double in the bottom of the sixth to tie the score for the ’Cats, as well as 4.1 innings pitched with 2 strikeouts and just one hit allowed.
Unfortunately, that hit was a game-winning base hit by Minnesota sophomore infielder Sydney Strelow, and the ’Cats fell 3-2.
The next day, a dreary, cold outing at Sharon J Drysdale Field, sophomore pitcher Sydney Supple got the start for Northwestern, going against Minnesota’s junior righty Autumn Pease. While Supple struggled out of the gate, allowing four runs to score in the first two innings, Pease absolutely dominated in the circle, allowing just two runs and retiring 11 straight Northwestern batters. Northwestern did get on the board with a two-run shot from junior infielder Maeve Nelson, but it wouldn’t be enough to match the Gophers’ six runs.
With two games on Sunday, the ’Cats hoped to take at least one to keep their top spot in the Big Ten, and prove their dominance with the bats. They sent their star pitcher, Williams, out in the first match to deal with the Gophers’ hot hand: Pease.
What followed was an absolute pitchers’ duel, as Williams and Pease each went the distance to pitch a full seven innings, allowing just one run each. Junior catcher Jordyn Rudd knocked in Northwestern’s lone run in the first, on a nice single to score junior outfielder Skyler Shellmeyer, but Minnesota would respond with a tough play on the infield to tie it up.
Despite fantastic pitching performances from both Williams (seven strikeouts) and Pease (nine), it would be Williams who broke first, allowing a pinch-hit home run to Minnesota sophomore Delanie Cox. The ’Cats would not recover, and Minnesota stole another win from Williams.
In the final game of the series, Northwestern was utterly dominated from the get-go. Morgan Newport, getting her first start of the series after pitching 4.2 innings on Friday, allowed five runs and six hits over just 1.1 innings of work, including three in the first inning and three in the second. Despite two runs in the first inning scored on a Jordyn Rudd home run and two more added on a shot by senior second baseman Rachel Lewis, the ’Cats were simply overpowered by the Golden Gophers, and lost the final game 10-4.
What went wrong for Northwestern in their first series loss? The simple answer is a lack of offense over these four games; the ’Cats, who had won thirteen games by four runs or more before this series, were stymied by a fantastic Gopher pitching staff, and were often just a step short of matching the Minnesota powerhouse. What cannot be blamed, however, is the fantastic work of pitchers Danielle Williams, Morgan Newport and Lauren Boyd, who had buoyed the pitching staff over rough innings and kept the ’Cats in close during the tough matchups.
Northwestern will now travel to Iowa (14-9) for their second true test of the season, as the Hawkeyes currently sit at fifth in the Big Ten. With their season no longer a perfect fantasy, the ’Cats will have a lot of ground to make up after losing four straight to their Big Ten counterpart, and there will be no better place to do it than in Iowa City.
Let’s hope they remember to bring their bats.