Northwestern Rises To Occasion, Advances To First Super Regional Since 2008
EVANSTON, Ill. — The word is right on the front of Northwestern’s handbook.
Advance to the next round. Advance to play another weekend. It’s a goal the Wildcats strive for every year. And since 2008, it’s been a goal they’ve fallen short of every year.
That changed Sunday. No. 16 Northwestern (47-11) came out of the loser’s bracket to win the Evanston Regional, winning two games against Louisville (35-23) to reach its first Super Regional in 11 years.
Leading by two runs in the seventh inning of the final game, Northwestern ace Danielle Williams, working her 13th inning of the day, had to get through the top of the Cardinals’ lineup one more time. Celene Funke led off with a triple down the right-field line, and Sidney Melton scored her with a groundout to short. But Williams toughed it out from there, getting Megan Hensley with a fly to right and Taylor Roby with a grounder to third to seal the 4-3 victory for the Wildcats.
“This is a big step for our program,” Northwestern coach Kate Drohan said. “Getting to the championship game of the regional last year (in Athens, Georgia), we really challenged this group to say, ‘hey, we’ve got more in the tank, and we can be better than that.’”
The Wildcats knew they would need their top pitcher to step up in the opener, and Williams did just that. She allowed just two hits and no walks over six shutout innings, striking out 10 in a 7-0 win. The Cardinals did not hit a single ball out of the infield.
Northwestern took the lead in the first inning on a Jordyn Rudd sacrifice fly, but the Wildcats did not have a hit until a four-run, fourth-inning rally. Nikki Cuchran and Morgan Newport each singled to put two runners on, and a two-out walk to Lily Novak loaded the bases. It appeared the rally would fizzle, however, when Skyler Shellmyer hit a ground ball to third. But Melton bobbled it for an error, scoring a run and allowing the inning to continue.
Northwestern took advantage of the mistake. Rachel Lewis was hit by a pitch to force in another run, and then Morgan Nelson’s two-run single made it a 5-0 game.
The Wildcats added single runs in the sixth and seventh to win comfortably.
“I had a completely different feel from our offense today,” Drohan said. “We were much more aggressive and we were able to put the ball in play right from the start.”
The winner-take-all nightcap was a much more intense affair. Both Williams for the Wildcats and Danielle Watson for the Cardinals were sharp early, and neither team had much of a scoring chance until the fourth.
It was then that the Wildcats struck first. Maeve Nelson led off with a walk and Cuchran singled for Northwestern’s first hit, putting runners at the corners. With one out, Newport lined a shot into the right-center field gap for a two-run double, giving the Wildcats the lead.
Louisville responded right away in the fifth. The Cardinals loaded the bases with nobody out, eventually capitalizing to tie the game on a wild pitch and a Melton RBI single. But with the bases reloaded, Williams struck out Roby to keep the score even.
Northwestern came right back in the bottom half. Two walks and a hit batter loaded the bases with one out for Cuchran, who had seven hits in her final 13 at-bats of the regional. The last of those hits, a two-run single to center field, gave the Wildcats the lead they would not relinquish.
But Northwestern was far from home-free. Louisville put the first two runners on base in the sixth, and Kyra Snyder hit what appeared to be a single to left field. But Maddy Newman, who had been on second, was late breaking for third and was thrown out on a close play. Williams then got a strikeout and a pop-up to get out of trouble before closing out the Cardinals in the seventh.
The Wildcats have their most wins in a season since 2007, but before Sunday had nothing measurable to show for it, having fallen short of both the Big Ten regular-season and Tournament titles. Sunday, however, represented a major breakthrough. This time, Northwestern advanced.
“You just saw a really driven group of women out there fighting hard for their school today,” Drohan said. “We’ve worked hard in every aspect of our game for this moment.”