By Ari Levin
The 2019 college softball season was the year of the dominant freshman pitcher.
Shealyn O’Leary of Texas allowed nine earned runs all year, only three in Big 12 play. Her ERA led all qualified pitchers.
UCLA’s Megan Faraimo stepped in alongside the national player of the year and contributed enough to win 16 games and hold opponents to a .164 batting average.
Montana Fouts led Alabama to the Women’s College World Series, dominated the toughest conference, and rebounded from a midseason injury to finish the regular season with an ERA below 1.
But for NFCA Division I Freshman of the Year, one of them stood above the rest: Northwestern’s Danielle Williams, the ace of the staff and a primary reason the Wildcats had their best season in 11 years.
But both Williams and her coach, Kate Drohan, would agree that, while Williams pitched phenomenally all year, the award wouldn’t be possible without her teammates.
“You can look at Danielle’s numbers,” said Northwestern coach Kate Drohan, “but it takes a team to do that.”
The numbers sure are gaudy. The first year pitcher from Pleasanton, Calif. pitched 230 innings with a 1.55 ERA. Her strikeout-to-walk ratio topped the nation through early May. She pitched 13 complete game shutouts, including six one-hitters.
Oh, and she hits, too. Williams batted .258 this season with 21 RBI. One game, against Illinois, Williams pitched a complete game shutout and added a two-run home run, getting as close as possible to winning a game by herself.
But Drohan was right about her success being a team effort, and the numbers back up that idea.
Williams’ one deficiency is allowing hard contact. She gave up 18 home runs this year. Compare that to Minnesota’s ace, Amber Fiser, who allowed 10 in more innings, and none in Big Ten games. But Williams allows fewer hits than Fiser, with a similar strikeout rate.
In fact, Williams allowed a batting average on balls in play (anything other than a strikeout or home run) of .243 in Big Ten games, lowest among qualified pitchers. Part of that is making great pitches to force weak contact, but it’s also a Northwestern trend. Teammate Kenna Wilkey is right behind her at .244, and senior Kaley Winegarner is even better at .176 in a smaller sample size. Their team average is best by a wide margin. The Wildcats, Williams especially, “should” have allowed more hits and runs than they did.
That means Williams’ success is heavily influenced by the seven women behind her. Mac Dunlap is a fantastic third baseman who regularly turns hits into outs with highlight reel plays. Skyler Shellmyer’s speed in center field is elite. Circling winds at Sharon J. Drysdale Field make fly balls difficult plays, but Shellmyer, Morgan Nelson, and the entire Wildcats outfield, has it mastered.
And the support goes beyond what can be quantified.
“What helps Danielle go out and throw like that is the leadership of a Kaley Winegarner in the dugout. It is knowing that someone could come in and save for the game for whenever she needs to,” said Drohan. “She doesn’t need to save herself for anything.”
She doesn’t have to be perfect, and she knows it. Sometimes, Williams can be seen almost celebrating right after giving up a big hit. Always with a big smile on her face, laughing with teammates. She also knows that, even if she falters, the rest of the pitching staff can pick up the slack.
“Different people are going to step up each day, and you never know who they’re going to be,” Wilkey said.
Of course, you don’t get over 300 strikeouts without talent. And Williams brings that in abundance.
“She’s super good,” Winegarner said. “She has amazing accuracy, amazing movement.”
In one of the biggest games of the season, Williams may have pitched her best. Northwestern entered May on a 20-game win streak and undefeated in the Big Ten. Minnesota was second as they faced in a weekend series. That Friday, Williams pitched yet another complete game shutout – against a lineup that made the Women’s College World Series.
The game went deep into the night after a 93-minute delay interrupted the final inning. Until Northwestern scored in the top of the seventh on a wild pitch, minutes before the delay, it felt like both Williams and Fiser, Minnesota’s starter, would go 15 innings or more.
Williams set herself apart from other Freshman of the Year contenders with her workload. Not only did she throw 58% of the team’s innings, but she’s the only top freshman pitcher to bat consistently. And that was no better on display than in Northwestern’s NCAA Tournament regional.
“The kind of pitcher who can win you a regional” was a common refrain early in the season about Williams. And she did just that.
Over that weekend, which included two extra games after Northwestern fell into the loser’s bracket, Williams dominated. She threw 23 innings, 340 pitches, in four appearances and struck out 32 batters. On Sunday, Northwestern needed to beat Louisville twice to advance. Williams left in the final inning of the first game, up by seven.
Northwestern needed one last win to advance. Danielle Williams pitched a complete game in the evening and Northwestern won their regional for the first time since 2008.