Wildcats forced to reshuffle defense

With the star backstop watching from the dugout, the Northwestern softball team will reshuffle its defense to try and catch a spot in the Big Ten championships.

The Wildcats (20-19, 8-4 Big Ten) lost their leading home-run hitter when sophomore catcher Gretchen Barnes reinjured her glove hand in Game 1 of Friday’s doubleheader versus Michigan State. Barnes had sustained a broken left finger when a runner slid into her during an NU game at Indiana.

When Barnes went down, starting third baseman Alyson Schulz was rushed into duty behind the plate. Schulz got off to a shaky start when she committed a passed ball in the eighth inning of Game 2, allowing Michigan State’s Lacy Hauxhurst to streak home with the winning run.

“I felt responsible for that last game, so it was nice to come back and redeem myself,” Schulz said. “I’m really glad the coaches gave me another shot.”

Schulz came through on the weekend, as she and the Cats responded by sweeping two games from No. 13 Michigan.

Having caught only one game while playing in the 12-and-under league, Schulz was once again under pressure in Saturday’s nailbiter against the Wolverines. Yet the freshman from San Diego battled through as she caught Brie Brown’s two-hit shutout and Lauren Schwendimann’s perfect game on Sunday.

“I’d never been a part of something like that, even as a fielder,” Schulz said. “It was pretty remarkable.”

Barnes will again be sidelined this weekend as NU takes on Ohio State and Penn State in crucial Big Ten matchups. Without her bat in the middle of the order, the Cats will need to repeat last Sunday’s offensive showing when they crushed Michigan 12-0.

“It’s hard to lose Gretchen,” senior second baseman Mikie Chambers said. “She’s a very important part of our team and our sole catcher all year. She’s one of the most positive sources of energy that we have on our team and it really hurts not to have her on the field with us.”

NOT QUITE IN THE BAG: Although the Cats did not move up in the Big Ten standings last weekend, they strongly improved their chances of qualifying for the conference championships next month.

With six games to play, NU is comfortably in fourth place and can virtually assure a spot in the top six with strong play this weekend.

The Cats did not play in the Big Ten championships last year. In 1998 they placed second overall with a 15-9 conference record. Only six current players who competed that year remain, so the veterans and coaches are making sure no one gets complacent in the stretch run.

“I don’t think they’re becoming overconfident because we haven’t talked a lot about the Big Ten (championships),” coach Sharon Drysdale said. “What I’m focusing on are the games we are playing on that day, so Friday, the Ohio State games are the most important games we’re going to play all year.”

GIMMEE FIVE: Prior to each inning, the NU infielders and battery meet on the pitcher’s mound and engage in a series of shoving, glove slapping and ball flipping that puts the Mile High Salute to shame.

Many players have done similar pre-inning rituals with their youth and high school teams. The hilarious display has evolved over the season and is done to make sure that all players are on the same page and pumped up to play defense.

“That’s a way of being in tune with your teammates,” Chambers said. “If they’re not giving you a strong high five, you know something is wrong and you have to pick them up.”