Speed and power to greet streaking Wildcats

Adam Rittenberg

The Northwestern softball team’s pitching staff could have its 12-inning scoreless streak snapped this weekend as Ohio State and Penn State bring an assortment of speed and power to Anderson Field.

Freshmen starters Brie Brown and Lauren Schwendimann go under the gun as they try to repeat the success of last weekend’s sweep of No. 11 Michigan. The NU hurlers overmatched the Wolverines, who left Evanston with only two hits and no runs.

That same type of dominance will be crucial in the weekend games, with Penn State leading the Big Ten in hitting and Ohio State bringing several top performers into Friday’s doubleheader.

Buckeyes centerfielder Anna Smith already has set a school record in stolen bases with 25. In the conference, she trails only Penn State outfielder Gina Bianchini, who has 36 swipes.

With starting catcher Gretchen Barnes nursing a broken finger, backup backstop Alyson Schulz and the entire NU infield will need to be on the lookout for stealing baserunners.

“We’ve been running a couple plays in practice, working with our catchers with runners on base, so we’re ready for the steal,” senior shortstop Tami Jones said.

After a lingering defensive slump the Wildcats’ infield tightened against Michigan. With Schulz moving behind the plate from third base, junior Brooke Siebel filled in with solid play at the corner.

Like Brown and Schwendimann, Siebel enters play this weekend coming off her best stretch of the season. Named co-Big Ten Player of the Week, Siebel scorched Michigan and Michigan State, hitting .500 with six hits and five RBIs. The junior has raised her season average to a team-leading .395, filling the void left by Barnes’ departure from the lineup.

The help of Siebel and Co. has helped raise the team batting average to .268 for the season, significantly higher than at the start of Big Ten play. And facing offense-minded opponents this weekend, NU will need to continue its success with the lumber.

“We’re going to have to jump on their pitchers very fast,” Brown said. “When we start jumping on people early like that, it keeps us up for the whole game.”

The Cats pitchers will not be briefed about the opposing lineups until gameday. But Ohio State’s Kristine Himes and Penn State’s Karen Gulini are players Brown and Schwendimann surely will be warned about. Himes has belted seven home runs this year, breaking a Buckeyes’ single-season record, while Gulini is leading the conference with her .407 batting average.

While NU’s pitchers understand what they are up against, the freshmen don’t feel much pressure. The last six conference games will determine where the Cats will place in the Big Ten championships and although there is no cockiness among players, the team is starting to talk tourney.

“We like to talk about where Big Tens will be held because we have a pretty good idea that we’re going to be there,” Schwendimann said. “We’re getting excited about it, but we’re mainly worried about the next few games ahead.”