By Ari Levin
When Nikki Cuchran came to the plate with the bases loaded in a tie game in the fifth inning, all she was thinking was “pass the bat.” Pitcher Danielle Watson was feeling the effects of a blister. So, when she left a pitch a little over the plate with not quite enough spin, Cuchran took advantage. A line drive just over Watson’s head brought two runs home to retake the lead.
That was the difference in No. 16 Northwestern’s 4-3 win over Louisville in winner-take-all game seven of the Evanston Regional as Northwestern completed the doubleheader sweep to advance to the super regionals for the first time since 2008. There, they will face No. 1 Oklahoma.
“[This win] shows how well we’re coming together, just as one unit and as a family as well,” said Cuchran, who had nine hits and a .500 batting average over the weekend.
The early game was pushed back over two hours due to weather. Once it started, Northwestern’s leadoff batter scored in the first, and another gem from Danielle Williams – six innings, two hits, no walks, 10 strikeouts – led Northwestern to an easy 7-0 win to force the game seven.
“We faced Williams a number of times, and you can see, she’s tough,” said Louisville’s first-year coach Holly Aprile, who led Louisville to the tournament for the first time in four years.
Northwestern made a dramatic change in the lineup for the day, moving slumping 2018 All-American Rachel Lewis from leadoff to the nine hole and everyone else up one slot.
“We just wanted to give Rachel a break,” said Northwestern coach Kate Drohan. “She’s working out of it. I think she fought hard today.”
In Lewis’ leadoff spot, Morgan Nelson walked to leadoff the game and soon scored the first run. She added a two-run base hit in the fourth, and another single in the sixth that led to another run.
The story of the day, however, was Danielle Williams, who pitched six innings in the first game and a complete game in the second. For the weekend, Williams made four starts and pitched 23 innings in 340 pitches, giving up just six runs while striking out 32.
“I think I just am in the moment, and I just feel, like, the atmosphere around me,” Williams said.
Williams got a slight scare in the seventh inning of the later game. Louisville’s Celene Funke made a sliding catch in the prior inning off a Williams fly ball but landed hard on her shoulder. She stayed in the game after trainers slid her shoulder back into place, and led off the seventh with a triple, adding to her NCAA-leading total of 13.
“I think I need to hit with one arm more often,” Funke said.
Luckily, Williams had an extra run to work with, and promptly retired the next three batters to finish off the Cardinals.
Now, Northwestern must face top-seeded Oklahoma, a team that outscored Northwestern 15-0 in two games back in March. The Sooners may be vulnerable, however, as they had a 41-game win streak snapped by Wisconsin on Sunday and won just 2-0 in their game seven.
“They are an excellent team, and we’ll be excited to go at them with our best stuff,” Drohan said.