Wildcats dream big but come up short

Zach Silka

Wildcats dream big but come up short

NU pitchers, hitters rarely delivered at the same time; poor defense plagued team

By Zach Silka

The Daily Northwestern

Entering the 2004 season, the Northwestern softball team had high expectations: win the Big Ten, win its NCAA regional tournament and win the Women’s College World Series.

Although the Wildcats accomplished none of these objectives, coach Kate Drohan said she still is pleased with the outcome of the season. NU finished fourth place in both the Big Ten regular-season standings and tournament. The Cats also placed fourth at last weekend’s Arizona NCAA regional tournament.

Making its second consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament, NU (34-20) won two games in Arizona, an improvement over its 1-2 record in the 2003 regional.

“The team has been in a building process since my freshman year,” senior second baseman Carri Leto said. “We have grown immensely since then, and it’s nice to know (the seniors) were a big part of building the team to get to the World Series.”

One weakness that kept NU from making the World Series was the inability to synchronize its offense and pitching. Game after game, either the offense or the pitching carried the load — neither of them clicking simultaneously. This ended up hurting the Cats in the postseason.

Such inconsistency was evident in shutout losses in the regional tournament to No. 21 Oklahoma and No. 9 Louisiana-Lafayette. In both games, NU’s hitters gave their pitchers no run support and could not build any momentum for the team.

Even in the Cats’ victory in their third game of the regional against South Carolina, it wasn’t until the seventh inning that NU’s offense generated any rallies. Sophomore pitcher Courtnay Foster had a less-than-stellar 15-14 record, but an excellent 1.74 ERA. This paradox only can be explained by the low run support, which her teammates failed to provide for much of the season.

There also were times during the season in which the offense was forced to carry the team because its hurlers were struggling in the circle.

In the Cats’ win over then-No. 6 Michigan on May 2, the Wolverines scored four straight runs in the middle innings to take a 4-2 lead late in the game. But designated player Garland Cooper crushed a grand slam in the bottom of the sixth inning to give NU a 6-4 win.

Cooper and third baseman Kristen Amegin provided a significant offensive punch in the middle of the lineup all season. Amegin broke the single-season home run record on April 23 with her eighth dinger, but Cooper finished the season one better than Amegin. Cooper smacked her 11th homer of the year on May 20 in the regional tournament against UC-Santa Barbara.

“Offensively, we generated a lot of power this season that broke a lot of records and kept us in a lot of games,” Drohan said. “It also allowed us to come from behind and showed us we are never out of a game, even against quality opponents.”

Amegin proved to be the designated clutch hitter late in the season for the Cats. She had walk-off home runs in two of team’s final six games of the season.

The area where NU struggled most was on defense. The Cats committed 73 errors as a team in 54 games.

“Defense was not one of our strengths this season and is the main improvement we need to make in the offseason,” Drohan said. “Defense is something that sustains you down the stretch, and we didn’t have that in a lot of games.”

With seven freshmen on this season’s squad, NU could be banking on a maturing lineup to provide future success. Drohan said she expects the Big Ten Freshman of the Year — pitcher Eileen Canney — Cooper, center fielder Katie Logan and the four other rookies to contend for starting positions next year.

“Our core of freshmen and sophomores have really developed this season,” Drohan said. “I expect them to be the strength of our team next season.”