This article was updated at 9:55 p.m. CST on April 23 to include further info
You wouldn't know it due to the next-game attitude of the team, but Northwestern is on the verge of history.
With their three-game sweep of Purdue (30-20, 6-11 Big Ten) from April 19-21 and their two wins against Illinois (27-19, 6-11 B1G) on April 23, all at home, the Wildcats (38-7, 17-0 B1G) are just six games away from a perfect conference season. Currently on a 16-game win streak and ranked 21st in the nation by the latest USAToday/NFCA poll, the team can become the second school in history to finish undefeated in Big Ten play. The only perfect record so far belongs to the 1997 Iowa Hawkeyes, who went 22-0.
Northwestern also needs just three more victories to achieve the most Big Ten wins in school history. Sharon Drysdale, who the 'Cats' current field is named after, led her 1995 team to a 19-9 conference finish.
Softball started the weekend against Purdue in electric fashion, winning 11-1 and 8-2 on Friday and Saturday, respectively. The Wildcats put up a combined 10 runs in the two first innings, putting the Boilermakers on the ropes early. Northwestern's batters forced a five-inning run-rule end on Friday after continuously punishing Purdue's pitchers. Though relief pitcher Maddie Damon seemed to figure out NU's offense after Saturday's second inning, the damage dealt to her fellow pitchers was too great to recover from.
The Wildcats' pitchers also frustrated Purdue for most of the weekend. Phenom Danielle Williams, an NFCA top-25 finalist for Freshman of the Year, allowed one hit and struck out 12 on Friday. The next day, Kaley Winegarner and Kenna Wilkey combined to hold Purdue to one earned run and five hits. Both pitchers allowed a few extra baserunners due to walking and hitting several batters, but managed to strand 13 players on base to avoid serious concern.
For as dominant as the Wildcats were, they also benefited from several Purdue missteps. The Boilermakers' starting pitchers on Friday and Saturday were both run off without recording a single out, setting up avalanches of runs. More than a few wild pitches happened during the weekend, letting Northwestern take bases when they weren't outright stealing them with relative ease.
But Purdue's biggest mistake came on Sunday. The Wildcats were down 2-0 at the bottom of the fourth inning, seemingly unable to get runs off of Sydney Bates despite some scoring chances. Williams had allowed just two hits, but it was enough for a small lead. With one out recorded, Williams hit a single toward left field. Purdue's Alex Echazarreta, however, let the ball get past her and allowed Jordyn Rudd to score from second.
The next batter, Skyler Shellmyer, laid down a bunt hoping to reach first. Purdue's Jenny Behan sent a throw to try and get the out, but couldn't connect with first-basewoman Lexi Huffman. The ball went so far to the outfield that both pinch-runner Mac Dunlap and Shellmyer reached home to give NU a lead they wouldn't give up.
"Initially, I was just thinking I'd get to [third base]," said Shellymer. "And then I look up rounding second base and I see [head coach Kate Drohan] waving her arm, and I'm like 'Are you serious? Are you really going to send me right now?' Then I look and see the ball is not even near the infield, so I was really happy about that."
For Tuesday's doubleheader against Illinois, the Wildcats practically replicated their weekend results. Game one saw Northwestern jump to an early 3-0 lead in the first inning and never let up, resulting in a five-inning 8-0 win (though two runs in the first inning were controversial, with Illinois' head coach Tyra Perry complaining about fielding interference by baserunner Morgan Newport). In the much-tenser second game, a two-out grand slam by Jordyn Rudd gave the cats a 4-0 lead in the third inning. However, opposing pitcher Sydney Sickels would promptly rebound and retire the next 10 batters.
Williams started both games on the mound, allowing four hits and striking out nine in the first match. Known as a workhorse, Williams returned from break after the shortened game one and allowed three hits in five more innings. She gave up a two-run homer in the fourth to Veronica Ruelius, but that was the only time Illinois would impact the scoreboard. The visiting team came close to striking again in the seventh-inning, with Newport pitching for Williams. Facing two runners on base and no outs, Newport managed to secure three outs in a row, including a final strikeout, to seal the win for Northwestern.
"We liked the lefty matchup against their team," said Drohan about bringing in Newport against Illinois. "She threw very well against them last year, and she's really, really tough in that situation. We had a lot of confidence in her."
The Purdue series was senior weekend for both left-fielder Morgan Nelson and first-basewoman Lily Novak. Nelson had 5 RBIs combined on Friday and Saturday, hitting a home run in each game. She went 0-2 on Sunday with two walks. Novak hit two singles on Friday, her only hits of the weekend.
Both have been dependable starters this season and in the past. Novak started at first base for every game in 2018, and fielded .995%. This season she's brought up her hitting percentage to .291 and her slugging to .444 with three homers. She has three total errors committed this season.
On the other hand, Nelson has played a variety of positions throughout her prolific career: she started at third base as a first-year, combined it with short stints at second base, shortstop, and designated player as a sophomore, and settled at left field for her junior and senior seasons. She's hit at a .307 clip throughout her time at NU.
Both players will no doubt be missed, but with a talented first-year class that includes three starting fielders, a catcher AND an ace pitcher, the future looks bright for the 'Cats.
The road ahead
This upcoming weekend features a three-game series against Michigan State (15-29, 3-13 B1G) at East Lansing, while next weekend sees the 'Cats take on Minnesota (32-10, 13-1 B1G) in Minneapolis. Playing on the road, especially against the Golden Gophers, will be a true test to see if Northwestern can finish the conference regular season undefeated.
Regardless if that pans out or not, securing the top spot in the Big Ten would be a terrific achievement. The last time Northwestern finished first in the conference regular season was in 2006. Both Minnesota and Michigan have only one Big Ten loss to their name, so every game is crucial to keep the Wildcats at the top of the standings.