Way Back Wednesday: The Wildcats in 1996
Northwestern Softball’s beat Loyola (Chicago) at a rain-soaked Sharon J. Drysdale Field Wednesday afternoon, making a little history along the way.
Head coach Kate Drohan (as well as her sister, Caryl Drohan, an assistant coach) won game career game No. 500 on Wednesday, truly a remarkable accomplishment.
Kate Drohan still has a long way to catch Drysdale, the program’s all-time winningest coach and the softball field’s namesake. Drysdale coached until 2001 and finished with 640 career wins, notching her 500th back in 1996.
With that in mind, let’s go back and examine what Northwestern Athletics looked like twenty years ago.
As many Northwestern fans know, the mid-90’s were very kind to the ‘Cats.
You could argue that Jan. 1, 1996 was a notable day for Northwestern; the ‘Cats appeared in the Rose Bowl, its first bowl game since the 1949 Rose Bowl. Keyshawn Johnson and the USC Trojans won the game, but Northwestern football had been put on the map once again.
The ‘96 season carried over much of the momentum from the ‘95 Rose Bowl season. The ‘Cats finished 9-3 and 7-1 in Big Ten play. That record earned Northwestern a trip to the 1997 Florida Citrus Bowl, where it dropped a 48-28 game to Peyton Manning’s Tennessee Volunteers.
That means that Northwestern finished with only two regular season losses, one of which was a one-point loss in the season opener at Wake Forest. The Northwestern’s trip to Pasadena in ‘95 will grab most of the attention, but the ‘96 Wildcats were nearly just as successful.
The ‘Cats were buoyed by a trio of all-time program greats. Quarterback Steve Schnur led the conference in completions, passing yards and passing touchdowns in 1996. Wide receiver D’Wayne Bates was his top target that season, and all he did was lead the Big Ten in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns.
And then there’s Darnell Autry. The running back established himself as one of the best tailbacks in program history. He finished with 35 career rushing scores and was drafted by the Chicago Bears following the ‘96 season. In 1996, Autry finished second in the Big Ten in touchdowns from scrimmage and third in yards from scrimmage.
Unfortunately for Northwestern, the ‘Cats wouldn’t finish with back-to-back winning seasons again until Pat Fitzgerald’s time as head coach.
As good as things looked for Northwestern football, it was a bleak time for Northwestern basketball.
The ‘95-’96 ‘Cats finished 7-20 and 2-16 in the Big Ten, losing 12 of their last 13 games. It was the penultimate season for the late Ricky Byrdsong as head coach, who went 34-78 in his four years.
That doesn’t mean that there wasn’t any talent on the hardwood, though. It was the first season for Northwestern big man legend Evan Eschmeyer, who averaged nine points and nearly seven rebounds a game for the ‘Cats in ‘96. The 6-11 Eschmeyer had his best campaign two seasons later, when he averaged 22 and 11 in ‘97-’98.
The leading scorer was none other than Geno Carlisle, who averaged nearly 20 points a game. Besides Eschmeyer, no other Wildcat would accomplish that feat again until John Shurna did so in 2012.
Yeah, Women’s Soccer deserves some love here. Two years after its first season in play, Northwestern women’s soccer made a statement.
The ‘Cats capped off a successful ‘96 campaign with an NCAA Tournament bid, the program’s first ever. Northwestern made the Big Dance again in ‘98, but that’s been it.
The ‘Cats finished 13-8-1, but could’ve done even better if not for a four-game skid to end the regular season. Northwestern lost its opening round Tourney game, 1-0 to Wisconsin.
In terms of individual highlights, Stephanie Erickson’s 14 goals in ‘96 are the second most any player has had in a season, and her 35 points that year marks the best offensive season any Wildcat player has ever had.
As good as Erickson was, the ‘96 ‘Cats also benefitted from solid goalkeeping. Wendy Scholz, the program’s career saves leader, notched 109 of them in ‘96 (fourth most in school history) along with a sparking 1.05 goals allowed per game average (also fourth best in program history).