Northwestern softball gears up for a game at Sharon J Drysdale Field. Led by senior second-baseman Rachel Lewis (center, 11) and junior utility player Morgan Newport (far right), the team was able to achieve two wins against Illinois this past weekend. Photos by Brandi Simpson / North by Northwestern

It’s been a strange year for Northwestern softball (24-12). After starting the year with nine straight wins and looking absolutely unstoppable, the ’Cats began to struggle against the Big Ten’s top dogs, including a 4-0 sweep by the Minnesota Golden Gophers (25-7, 2nd B1G) and a tough 3-1 series loss to Michigan (28-5, 1st B1G). Returning home to Sharon J. Drysdale Field after two weekends on the road, the ’Cats were hoping to dominate in-state rival Illinois (22-14) and get some momentum back under their cleats.

Unfortunately, it was not a perfect weekend. Northwestern split the series against the Fighting Illini, trading wins with the orange squad in alternating fashion; while Illinois won the first game 4-2 and the third game 4-3, the ’Cats won the second game 7-6 in dramatic fashion — a two-run walk-off home run from graduate utility player Morgan Newport — and the final game in convincing fashion, a 6-3 dominating win.

In addition to the walk-off, Newport helped lead Northwestern with four hits, two home runs and five runs batted in (RBIs,) second only to senior second-baseman Rachel Lewis, who knocked in five RBIs and led the way with six hits, with two home runs of her own. Junior center-fielder Skyler Shellmyer also starred for Northwestern, whacking six hits and scoring two runs.

Pitching-wise, the ’Cats saw fantastic performances from sophomore left-hander Sydney Supple, who allowed just seven hits over 9.2 innings of work, and junior left-hander Danielle Williams, who struck out 20 batters over 14 innings of work and allowed 14 hits, despite taking the loss in the opening game.

Sophomore third-baseman Delaney Rummell and junior first-baseman Kailee Powell led Illinois in their efforts. Rummell whacked four hits and notched six RBIs over the four games, while Powell recorded five hits and three RBIs while also scoring two runs over the first three games. The Illini also saw a workhorse pitching effort from junior right-hander Sydney Sickels, who appeared in all four games, started three of them, and pitched the first two completely; over 18.1 innings, Sickels struck out 17 and allowed 22 hits.

Game 1:

The first game, like others this season, started with a whimper for the ’Cats. Played on April 30, the ’Cats sent top pitcher Williams to the circle, but the Illini were able to strike early with a solo home run from senior catcher Bella Loya, and recorded three “small-ball” runs — meaning they scored with great base-running and shallow hits — in the fourth inning to put themselves up 4-0. While Northwestern attempted a comeback in the fifth inning on a two-run double from Lewis, the ’Cats were unable to keep the momentum going, and dropped the first game 4-2.

Game 2:

The second game, the first of a doubleheader played on May 1, was a true back-and-forth affair that saw just how fun it can be to watch rivalries on the diamond. Sending Newport to the mound, the ’Cats fell behind 3-0 early, thanks to more small-ball from Illinois; an RBI single by Rummell and errors by Northwestern’s infield were to blame. Not to be outdone, however, the ’Cats clawed back with three runs of their own in the third, including two triples from Shellmyer and Newport.

The Illini, however, refused to go down easy, and scored another two runs in the fifth inning on a home run from senior shortstop Katie Wingerter and another infield error from Northwestern. Facing their fifth consecutive loss, manager Kate Drohan lifted Newport from the circle and entered Supple, who was lights-out in the relief appearance: one hit, no runs allowed.

Northwestern left-hander Sydney Supple looks on during a game at Sharon J Drysdale. Supple was critical during Saturday's double-header, pitching 9.2 innings over two games played and earning an important victory.

On the back of Supple, the ’Cats quickly began the comeback, scoring two runs in the sixth off a home run by junior shortstop Maeve Nelson and an RBI double from junior first-baseman Cuchran. Heading into the final frame down one and a man on base, Newport stepped up to the plate and halted the losing streak with a two-run walk-off off the scoreboard in center.

Game 3:

Fired up after the dramatic victory, the ’Cats entered the second game of the double-header eager to take a series lead over their rival. Supple, fresh off earning the win from earlier in the day, allowed two runs early in the game — a double by Rummell and a single by Wingerter early in the first inning — but locked down the Illinois for most of the following innings. Still feeling the momentum, Lewis and Newport continued to set the pace for the ’Cats, each knocking a homer over the outfield fence to put Northwestern up 3-2.

It wasn’t to be, however — after being held scoreless for five innings, Illinois’s Powell finally solved Supple, and sent a ball flying over the outfield fence to put Illinois up 4-3. While the ’Cats were able to load the bases with two outs in the final frame, Sickels entered the game for Illinois to get the final out: a strikeout by sophomore left-fielder Angela Zedak.

Game 4:

Junior pitcher Danielle Williams and senior third-baseman Mac Dunlap chat during a break in play. On the back of Williams, the 'Cats earned their second win of the series during the final game.

While the ’Cats could no longer claim a series victory in the final game played on May 2, they played with enough fire to earn the tie and keep themselves in contention for the Big Ten crown. While the team once again allowed early runs to score — a three-run first inning shot from Rummell put Illinois up 3-0 early — Williams was able to lock the Illini down the rest of the way, pitching a complete game with 10 strikeouts. On the back of their star pitcher, the ’Cats finally solved Sickels and scored five runs off her, including two in the second and three in the third. With one more run scored off of junior pitcher Addy Jarvis, the 'Cats coasted all the way to a 6-3 win.

The ’Cats now sit at third in the Big Ten, sitting just behind Minnesota and Michigan, who each beat Northwestern wholeheartedly in their series. While a Big Ten crown is highly unlikely for the Wildcats, the team still has a number of chances to pick up convincing wins, including next weekend at twelfth-ranked Purdue (13-23 B1G) before returning home to play Nebraska (20-16 B1G) in the regular-season finale. Unlike other sports in the Big Ten, there will be no Big Ten Tournament this year due to COVID restrictions and a lack of necessity for it, but the Wildcats’ resume still bodes well for a possible NCAA tournament berth, where they could compete against a number of nationally-renowned teams for the chance to travel back to Oklahoma City for the College World Series.

Down early, but not out.

Keep on pounding.