Correction (4/14): The photo of Morgan Nelson was erroneously credited on publication. The actual photographer is Will Kennedy of Northwestern Athletics. NBN regrets the error.
Ask Northwestern players and coaches about a game they've faced significant pressure in this softball season, and you'll get plenty of different answers.
As a team that has had a penchant for come-from-behind victories in 2019, Northwestern was in danger of having the tables turned on them by nearby Loyola-Chicago on Wednesday.
It was the sixth inning of a not-so-pretty game, with the Wildcats up 5-1 thanks in part to a three-run-causing Rambler error the inning prior. Sophomore pitcher Kenna Wilkey had just walked a batter and hit the next. And this was after first-year catcher Jordyn Rudd lost track of a passed ball, allowing the baserunner on first to take third.
Now was set up a two-out, bases-loaded opportunity for Loyola's Katie Kasubke. Wilkey knew that any wrong move could set up a rally for the Ramblers and lose the Wildcats their second game in two weeks versus city rivals, after a 7-9 loss to DePaul.
On dangerous 3-2 count, it was time to make a statement. Wilkey threw. Kasubke swung. Rudd caught. Inning over.
Northwestern (29-7, 9-0 Big Ten) held on to win the game 5-1 against Loyola (20-14), and made things easier for themselves during the weekend by comfortably sweeping (8-0, 8-2, 4-0) their in-conference foe Nebraska (13-22, 2-7 Big Ten).
The 'Cats continued to build on their impressive 2019 campaign, aided by the pitching and fielding on display both during the week and all season. The team allowed just three runs in 28 innings, and remain unbeaten in conference play.
Head coach Kate Drohan entered the season with 570 career coaching wins with NU, and is now one win away from number 600. She can reach that milestone as soon as Tuesday against Notre Dame in Evanston.
No player has commanded more respect and awe on the team this season than first-year Danielle Williams (19-3). She boasts a 1.07 ERA after two dazzling complete-game shutouts against Nebraska, having given up just three hits and one walk while striking out 22 batters in fourteen innings. Heading into the weekend series her ERA was 13th-best in the country, and her resumé includes a shutout victory against a ranked Indiana team.
The pitching corps feature more than just Williams, of course. Junior Morgan Newport (0-1, 1.50 ERA) got a rare start for the Loyola-Chicago game, and on Saturday Wilkey (7-2, 2.62 ERA) pitched a complete game against Nebraska. Newport was pulled for Wilkey against the Ramblers, though not on account of a particularly poor performance: she allowed just one run and two hits, but struck out just one.
Wilkey ran into some problems against Nebraska, but again pulled through relatively unscathed. She faced bases-loaded situations in both the first and fifth innings, due to walks and mistakes by both herself and sophomore Rachel Lewis, respectively. Nevertheless, Wilkey escaped them with strikeouts and avoided giving up runs. In total she allowed five hits and three walks in seven innings, and her teammates provided her a nice run cushion to win the game.
Northwestern's first-year players as a whole have been instrumental to the team's success. While Williams is clearly having a great season on the mound, first-years Nikki Cuchran, Maeve Nelson and Jordyn Rudd currently hold three of the team's top-four batting averages. Skyler Shellmyer, another first-year player, has started every game for the 'Cats and has zero errors as centerfielder.
Cuchran hit a grand slam in the third inning on Saturday to open up scoring against Nebraska after getting two hits the day before. Rudd got a hit in every game along with an RBI each match but Sunday.
Nelson hit her seventh home run on Friday, and is currently second on the team in homers behind Lewis' 11. However, the first-year struggled for a while on Saturday after failing to get a hit when the bases were loaded twice. She finally got a single in the seventh and would eventually score off a Rudd single.