By Ari Levin
Northwestern softball faces its toughest test of the year and perhaps in more than a decade this weekend as they take on No. 1 Oklahoma (52-3) in the super regionals. The Wildcats need to take two of three games to advance. Here’s what you need to know about Oklahoma before this weekend’s series.
They’re really, really good
Oklahoma ranks first in the nation in ERA and fielding percentage, second in runs scored. I’m not a fan of fielding percentage as a stat, but that’s not the point. They’re the best team in the nation by a large margin. They won 41 straight games, a record for a single-season streak, until last weekend against Wisconsin, who they rallied to beat again later that day.
Northwestern has already had a chance to see how good Oklahoma is. Northwestern played a weekend in March at the Oklahoma tournament, which included two games against the host team. They lost those games by a combined 15-0.
The pitching, especially G Juarez, is dominant
Oklahoma’s staff has three aces, including Mariah Lopez and Shannon Saile, but the ace of aces is Giselle “G” Juarez, Big 12 Pitcher of the Year and a top-10 finalist for USA Softball National Player of the Year. The transfer from Arizona State has 1.15 ERA this year (which actually ranks third on the team; again, three aces) and 218 strikeouts to 29 walks, with a .134 average against. Oklahoma hits .359, compared to just to .146 for their opponents. Her transfer was a big deal and she’s gotten even better since and has improved even more after a slow start to the season.
Last weekend, in the regional, Juarez had a 0.37 ERA. She gave up just one run in 19 innings while striking out 32. She also threw a no-hitter in the 1-0 game.
Northwestern already had a taste of Juarez in March to the tune of nine shutout innings, 12 strikeouts, and just one walk and three hits.
The lineup is ridiculously stacked
Sydney Romero hits leadoff as the Big 12 Player of the Year and a newly-named top-three finalist for the national award. She hits .429 with 18 home runs, and her OBP of .448 ranks fifth-best in the lineup.
Caleigh Clifton is the other .400 hitter in the lineup and has scored more runs (64) than all of Oklahoma’s opponents combined (61) with an .897 slugging percentage.
Seven players on the team slug at least .580, and it was the other two – Grace Lyons and Lynnsie Elam – who combined for three home runs in the Northwestern series.
Then there’s players like Jocelyn Alo, who hit 30 home runs last year but is at “only” 14 this year, and Fale Aviu, who has 30 walks, plus five hit by pitches, and just six strikeouts this season.
I can keep throwing out ridiculous numbers like this (another: Oklahoma has only allowed six steals on 16 attempts, and none to Big 12 opponents) but, the point is, this team is a unique challenge.
Northwestern has the ability to compete
Oklahoma dropped a game to Wisconsin. Northwestern swept Wisconsin. It’s possible. Kaitlyn Menz was able to shut down the lineup repeatedly over the weekend, and Northwestern was able to get to her in all three games of the sweep. While you probably shouldn’t read too much into that one fact, it does show that Oklahoma isn’t invincible.
All it takes is Danielle Williams doing Danielle Williams things for Northwestern to be right in every game. By the way, she was named a top-three finalist for NFCA Freshman of the Year this week. We saw how great she can be last week, and in terms of volume won’t be asked to do as much, and she can prepare for Oklahoma specifically.
The other bright spot is the fact that Northwestern scored 35 runs in the regional, more than any other team. The lineup can heat up, and they’ll have to against the pitching staff they face. If things go right, it’s easy to see Northwestern taking a game, potentially even more.