By Ari Levin
February 16, 2018: Kaley Winegarner was one out away from extra innings and giving Northwestern softball a chance at an upset win over Louisville in the season’s second weekend. It was 58 degrees in Raleigh, N.C., site of the 2018 ACC-Big Ten Challenge, a drop from 80 degrees at the beginning of the Friday doubleheader. The junior pitcher, coming off a great sophomore campaign, set to deliver the 3-1 pitch. Pitch No. 102 in the game, No. 110 of the day for Winegarner, missed the zone and loaded the bases. It was her last pitch of the year.
“I knew what it was right away,” Winegarner said. A torn ACL in her left knee. For the third time.
“In that moment, I thought I was going to be done. Because in the past, I’ve always said if I tore it a third time, that I would be done. But as soon as it happened, I knew I was going to come back. I wasn’t ready to be done playing,” she said.
Kenna Wilkey, pitching for just the third time in her collegiate career, replaced Winegarner. She threw just four pitches before giving up the winning run.
In a year of dominant freshman pitchers – Alabama’s Montana Fouts, UCLA’s Megan Faraimo, Northwestern’s Danielle Williams, to name a few – their success raises the question: Who are they replacing?
Winegarner’s most recent injury cut short what could have been a great junior season. She started the team’s first game, a close loss to a top-10 team.
In 2017, Winegarner led Northwestern in innings pitched. Her 2.85 ERA ranked 15th in the Big Ten. But her story goes back much further. That season was her first full one in five years.
Back then, the possibilities seemed endless for 14-year-old Winegarner. A star pitcher for Pacifica, a top high school in California, Winegarner was a Freshman All-American. That list included the eventual 2018 SEC Player of the Year, 2019 Pac-12 wins and strikeouts leader, and three of the top eight picks in the 2019 National Pro Fastpitch draft. That’s the level she might have reached if not for the injuries.
The first torn ACL, in 2013, cost Winegarner the second half of her sophomore high school season. She rehabbed, only to tear the ligament again the following year, forcing her out for her entire senior season. After a coaching change at Stanford, her original choice, she changed her commitment in December to Northwestern. There, her playing time was limited her first season and her fourth.
Kenna Wilkey replaced Winegarner not just that day in February, but for the two years since. In 2018, the first-year pitcher was Northwestern’s first 20-game winner since 2009, ranked sixth in the Big Ten in strikeouts, made the conference All-Freshman Team, and was the winning pitcher in two NCAA tournament games. All the while, Winegarner could only watch.
Every mark Wilkey set has been far surpassed this year.
Danielle Williams pitched a complete game one-hit shutout in her first game and never looked back. The Big Ten Freshman of the Year has pitched 222.2 innings with a 1.41 ERA, and 310 strikeouts. Her 13 complete game shutouts is one off the national lead. She has 31 wins.
In a sport where most teams rely on just two pitchers, Williams is Northwestern’s ace and Wilkey is behind her. Junior Morgan Newport is usually third if needed. Winegarner received a medical redshirt for last year and plans to return for a fifth year. But with the young stars, and another top pitching prospect joining next year, her playing time may be even more limited than the 33.2 innings she’s thrown in 2019.
Outwardly, Winegarner has taken all this in stride.
“She’s had such an unbelievable attitude,” said coach Kate Drohan. “In the dugout, in practice, in her bullpens.”
In the dugout, she’s always on the top step with everyone else, standing just a bit more upright and higher than her teammates (listed at 5-feet-9-inches, she’s the second-tallest member of the team.) Multiple players pointed to her as a leader in the dugout, commonly leading chants.
“It’s a hard ask,” Drohan said of Winegarner’s responsibilities during her comeback. “And she’s nailing it.”
When she pitches, Winegarner whips around her right hand hard, punctuating pitches with a double grunt “AHHuh” that sounds almost like a loud cough. She wears a pigtail braid in her profile picture but more often has her hair, blonder in person than in that picture, down in one ponytail tied at the base (like in the Big Ten Tournament) or has the two braids tied together with a bow (a late-season start against Purdue.) And she still wears the brace on that left knee.
Fifteen months after that February in Raleigh, Northwestern faces Louisville again. Yet everything is different. Instead of a February non-conference game, it’s the NCAA Tournament. Northwestern is now the favorite as they host the regional. And Winegarner is no longer the ace, but the fourth option. Northwestern has played 12 tournament games in her career, and she hasn’t pitched in any of them.
Slightly after 8 p.m. on a warm-ish night under temporary lights, 676 fans rise to their feet with Northwestern one out away from advancing to the super regionals. Williams is looking to finish a complete game, her 13th inning of the day and 23rd of the weekend.
Winegarner watches, leaning on the dugout railing with the rest of her teammates. She doesn’t react to anything negative but claps for everything good. She shouts to her pitcher, “You got it, D!” With a 1-2 count, she drops from the top step to jump in the dugout. Chants of “Let’s go ‘Cats” ring out from the stands.
Ground ball to third. It’s an easy play.
Winegarner darts out behind backup catcher Eva Stees. A sea of white forms in the infield. Winegarner celebrates on the outer edge of the circle. And slowly, she disappears into the middle.