Wildcats upset No. 12 Wolves

Nicholas Collins

The lousy weather at Sharon J. Drysdale field had nothing to do with the Northwestern softball team playing only 24 innings in their four-game weekend.

Two games ending in five innings thanks to eight-run rulings highlighted a weekend that saw the Wildcats go 3-1, including a 3-2 win over No. 12 Michigan on Friday and a sweep of Michigan State on Sunday.

The Cats (21-13-1, 9-5 Big Ten) opened their four-game homestand with a pitchers’ duel, as NU junior Lauren Schwendimann (14-4) topped the Wolverines’ Marissa Young (19-7).

“It was a big win for the program,” NU coach Kate Drohan said. “It’s a big win because now we know we can play with the best of the Big Ten.”

NU, down 2-1 in the sixth, got a boost from their double-play combo of Carri Leto and Erin Mobley. Leto led off with a single, scoring on a Mobley single via a Wolverines error.

The Cats then manufactured a run in the seventh to pull off the upset. Catcher J.C. Kira reached on a hit-by-pitch, was moved around to third on a single by Brett Nakabayashi and scored on another single by Leto.

“Carrie Leto is on fire right now, especially in those pressure situations,” Drohan said.

Michigan (36-9, 10-3) fed off two Stefanie Volpe grand slams on Saturday, avoiding a sweep with a convincing 11-1, five-inning victory.

“It was a disappointment,” NU senior Gretchen Barnes said. “It was a big loss, but overall we’re all very happy with the weekend.”

The Cats had plenty to be happy about Sunday, lighting up the scoreboard for 15 runs and 21 hits in just 12 innings of play.

“It was really fun (to face Michigan State pitching),” Leto said. “Everyone went up there with confidence, everyone was hitting the ball really hard, even on our outs. We really made them work on defense.”

Drohan pointed towards the emergence of Barnes from a slump as the spark plug for her offense.

“Gretchen Barnes turning it around and hitting the ball really generated a lot of momentum for our offense,” Drohan said. “I think a lot of people feed off that because of the power she has.”

Barnes broke out of her slump in a big way, going 5-for-5 with a double, a home run, and six RBIs in the doubleheader.

The Cats jumped on the Spartans (23-29, 4-10) early and often, taking the five-inning opener 8-0.

“It felt good,” Brown said. “You’ve got to bounce back quickly after a game like that because there are more games to go.”

After taking the loss in the Michigan defeat, Brown recorded all seven innings of the Cats’ 7-3 win in the nightcap Sunday, despite exiting briefly after some troubles in the sixth. Drohan went to the bullpen for freshman Stephanie Elliott, who gave up a run without recording an out. Brown stepped back in and recorded the third out of the sixth.

The junior gave up only two runs with no walks despite the slippery conditions.

“Brie was exceptional today, ” Drohan said. “She was in complete control. I decided to mix it up a bit (with Elliott), and even then she stayed ready and could still come in to finish.”

Drohan noted that Brown threw well all weekend, being more of a victim of circumstance then of poor performance in her loss to Michigan.

Brown was backed by an NU defense that weathered the chilling rain to play error-free softball.

“That’s always a big deal for our team,” Leto said. “We joke about it, that we’ve got a doughnut up on the scoreboard in the error column, but usually when we play error-less ball, we win.”

The stellar defense included a pair of spectacular catchers by center fielder Rane Gunderson.

“Her catch (in Game 1) was the perfect dive, take the picture of it, put it up on the wall,” Brown said.

With the sweep of Michigan State, the Cats head into the final weekend of conference play in fourth place, looking to qualify for the six-team Big Ten tournament.

“It was hard coming off the Michigan (loss),” Barnes said. “We definitely needed these wins, and to take two from (the Spartans) was tremendous.”