Cardiac Wildcats pull into 2nd spot (Softball)

Brian Sumers

IOWA CITY, Iowa — With her team heading into extra innings for the third time in three days, Northwestern assistant coach Caryl Drohan walked out of her team’s dugout, grinned, and asked her squad a question.

“How much softball do you guys want to play?”

The Wildcat softball team finished second at this weekend’s Big Ten softball tournament, but no team notched as many innings as the Cats. During the three-day tournament, the Cats played 52 innings in five games.

As the sixth seed in the double elimination tournament, the Cats (35-17) had to claw their way to reach Saturday’s championship game against Iowa (41-13). To make it to the finals, the Cats won three of four –including two extra-inning victories over No. 25 Michigan State and a 12-inning squeaker over No. 17 Michigan.

“We blew everyone’s minds,” said All-Tournament third baseman Cindy Muran. “They didn’t think we were going to come out as the sixth seed and do so well.”

But after playing so many innings and close games, the Cats couldn’t keep up with the No. 23 Hawkeyes. In the championship game, the Cats lost 2-0 to the tournament hosts.

“We felt like we were supposed to be in this game,” said Lauren Schwendimann, the starting pitcher. “It hurts — it’s a disappointment because we were so close.”

By the final day of competition, the Hawkeyes were sharper than the Cats. Iowa had played only 15 innings in two games before facing NU.

The Cats, playing their second game of the day, showed some fatigue against the Hawkeyes. In six innings of work, Schwendimann didn’t allow an earned run. But four NU errors put two Iowa runs on the board.

“I think (playing so much) wore on us for sure,” head coach Kate Drohan said. “That’s where the mistakes started– we weren’t as mentally sharp as Iowa.”

Earlier Saturday, it looked like NU might not make it to the championship game. Down 3-2 in their semifinal matchup with Michigan State, the Cats made two quick outs in the seventh. But after singles by sophomore right fielder Erin Mobley and Muran, Schwendimann smacked the first pitch she saw into center field for a game-tying RBI single.

One inning later, senior Jessie Wellnitz belted a three-run walk-off home run over the left field wall. That longball gave NU a 6-3 victory and put the Cats in the title game.

The Cats could have avoided the losers bracket and Saturday’s Michigan State nail biter if they had defeated Iowa on Friday. A win over the Hawkeyes would have allowed NU to advance straight to the championship game.

In Friday night’s 2-1 loss to the Hawkeyes, NU took an early 1-0 lead when Robyn Pettinger scored on an Iowa error.

But the Cats couldn’t hold the lead. After Schwendimann allowed a two-out single in the top of the fifth, Drohan replaced her with freshman Courtnay Foster. Facing her first batter, Foster allowed a two-run home run.

“I just threw a bad pitch — what else is there to say? she said. “It happens.”

While Foster struggled against Iowa, the All-Tournament hurler was nearly unhittable earlier in the week. Fresh off an 18-inning shutout performance Thursday, Foster entered Friday’s game against Michigan in the seventh inning with the score knotted at six. She kept the Wolverines scoreless for the next six frames, fanning 11 and scattering three hits.

In the 12th, NU’s offense finally came through. With two outs and runners at the corners, Muran smacked a two-run double off the wall in right center.

“I was trying to get my hands out and hit it as hard as I could,” she said. “I just wanted to win at that point–I was too tired to play anymore.”

Although NU didn’t win the championship, the squad’s victories showed Drohan that NU will be able to compete in the NCAA Tournament.

“We’ve been talking about being tough for the last three weeks,” she said. “We’ve been joking that all these teams have pushed us. But they did a little more than push back this weekend.”

Senior shortstop Robyn Pettinger said she she’s sure the Cats will make a run in the NCAA tournament. The No. 2 seeded Cats face Tennessee Tech in the first round in Austin, Texas, on May 15.

“Watch out– cause we’re on fire,” Pettinger said. “They better be ready, because this team is going far.”