Season Preview: Softball
By Logan Schiciano
A Big Ten regular season championship, a magical super regional victory and a ticket to the Women’s College World Series were all part of a 2022 season where Northwestern softball defied expectations. With all but one of the ‘Cats starters returning, a trip back to Oklahoma City is seemingly not a matter of if, but when.
Northwestern had one of the most well-rounded lineups in the country last year. Skyler Shellmyer and Grace Nieto brought speed. Jordyn Rudd and Nikki Cuchran brought consistency. And Rachel Lewis brought – well – pretty much everything.
In her final season the graduate student hit .353, with 23 home runs and 62 RBIs. She passed Tammy Williams for the most home runs ever by a Wildcat (65) and had Northwestern’s lone long ball of the World Series against the eventual-winner Oklahoma.
Lewis’s absence will certainly be felt in 2023, but the wound could have been much larger.
Maeve Nelson, Rudd, Shellmyer, Cuchran, and, perhaps biggest of all, ace Danielle Williams, could’ve hung up their cleats after last season. Instead, the quintet will remain in Evanston and lead a Wildcats squad that is ranked in the top-10 across all the major polls to start the season.
Led by the legendary coaching tandem of Kate and Caryl Drohan, Northwestern announced itself to the softball world last February when Nelson hit a walkoff three-run homerun against then-No. 3 UCLA at the SPC Elite Invite in Florida. The “Cardiac ‘Cats” label quickly became an identity as Northwestern racked up dramatic 1-0 victories over both Oregon and Washington during the non-conference slate.
The Wildcats continued their stellar play in the Big Ten, en route to a conference regular season title. Aside from Lewis’s dominance at the dish, Williams was one of the premier pitchers not just in the Big Ten, but across the country.
The ultimate workhorse for a Northwestern team that lacked pitching depth, Williams had a 2.08 ERA and recorded 333 strikeouts over 251 innings. Named Big Ten Pitcher of the Year, the senior ranked third in the nation in strikeouts, and a no-hitter early in the season against Stanford was just the prelude to her jaw-dropping postseason performance.
Williams was the only pitcher in last year’s WCWS to start every game for her team. No one can forget her gritty outing in Game 1 of the Super Regional against Arizona State when she lasted 11 innings, fanning nine and tossing 179 pitches. Perhaps more impressive than the lefty’s stats was the way she battled in the NCAA tournament. Never shying away from the big moment, Williams managed to stay level-headed and escape jam after jam, keeping the ‘Cats in games until the very end.
Another major key to the Wildcats’ success in 2022 was the all-around play of Rudd, who was the first catcher awarded a Rawlings Gold Glove. She was Softball America’s National Defensive Player of the Year, but also led the ‘Cats with a .370 batting average and struck out just nine times in 173 at bats. Like Williams, Rudd stepped-up when it mattered, batting .643 in the Super Regional, including a career-high four hits, three RBIs and the go-ahead run in the game that sent the ‘Cats to the WCWS.
But after all that elation in Tempe – arguably the best Super Regional of the tournament – the end for Northwestern was abrupt. After shocking the Sun Devils in three games, the Wildcats were leveled by eventual-champion Oklahoma and ousted from the WCWS by UCLA the next day.
Still, there’s no reason to believe that Northwestern can’t make another deep run this year.
The ‘Cats addressed their biggest liability from last season – pitching depth – by bringing in Cami Henry from Depauw University. Henry posted a 1.71 ERA across her four seasons with the Tigers, earning her NCAC Pitcher of the Year in three of them. While she certainly has a lot to prove, making the leap to a Division I powerhouse, Henry, along with a healthy Lauren Boyd, should provide cover for Williams and keep the graduate student fresh down the stretch this year.
Constructing the lineup without a five-tool player like Lewis will be slightly more of a challenge for the Drohans, so look for some younger players to get more of an opportunity to contribute this year.
Ayana Lindsey was used mostly in pinch situations in 2022, but she did not waste her chances, going 9-26. She also jacked two home runs and swiped 13 bags across 49 games. The Iowa City native could certainly contend for time in the designated player role or even right field, where Lewis roamed last season.
While Northwestern’s freshman class was ranked far below other World Series contenders like Florida, UCLA, Texas and Arizona, there’s still plenty of talent coming to Evanston. Bridget Donahey is a top-20 recruit, according to MaxPreps, and brings versatility on defense and power at the plate. The ‘Cats also welcome Kansas Robinson and Kelsey Nader – both raked in high school and bring above-average speed to the table.
Just as the Wildcats did in 2022, they will need to make a statement during non-conference play. Northwestern battles another WCWS team in Texas this Saturday, and has top-25 matchups with Tennessee, UCLA, Oregon, North Texas and No. 1 Oklahoma on the horizon.
Though Northwestern doesn’t play its first home game until March 21 against UIC, there’s a ton of can’t miss action in what is shaping up to be another exciting season for the ‘Cats.