No. 1 stunner as Cats upset mighty UCLA (Softball)

Andrew Simon

Northwestern toppled No. 1 UCLA on Sunday in Los Angeles, adding a big Hollywood ending to its non-conference season script.

With the victory, the Wildcats improved to 18-8 on the season and moved to No. 16 in the nation heading into their Big Ten opener on Friday against Wisconsin.

After finishing the 2005 campaign at No. 15, NU has climbed as high as 12th this season, but has fallen as far as 18th due to inconsistent play. However, the Cats have faced all of the teams currently in the top five in the nation, going 1-4 and accounting for half of their losses this season.

The erratic performance was most apparent during the team’s Spring Break trip to Hawaii and California. After cruising through Honolulu with a 6-0 record, the Cats split four contests in the Golden State.

NU gave up six runs in each of its two losses on the trip, to Cal State Fullerton and Long Beach State. But when the Cats won, they did so in style, beating Fullerton with junior Eileen Canney’s no-hitter before shocking the top-ranked Bruins in a tight, 3-2 battle.

“We started well, but there were some games we should have won that we didn’t,” junior first baseman Garland Cooper said. “But we’ve been training to peak at the right time, and beating UCLA shows we’ve taken the steps we needed to take. I think we’ve paved a great path for ourselves.”

Canney, who earned the win against UCLA, is a big part of the reason the Cats are in their current position. The second-team All-Big Ten selection from last year has been dominant, compiling a 1.67 ERA and whiffing 137 batters in 92 innings, en route to an 8-4 record.

“I’m just doing the best I can right now,” Canney said. “I’ve been getting a lot of backup from my teammates with run support and playing great defense. You can always improve; it’s just about getting experience in big situations and making big pitches.”

Senior Courtnay Foster, a first-team All-Big Ten selection last season, has teamed with Canney to provide NU with a formidable one-two punch in the circle, notching a 10-4 record with a 1.96 ERA.

Meanwhile, Cooper leads the charge for the Cats’ offense. So far, Cooper hasn’t matched her output of a year ago, when she hit .436 and slammed 11 homers on her way to being named Big Ten Player of the Year and a first-team All-American. But she’s still second on the team this season with a .342 average, 18 RBIs and a .556 slugging percentage.

“All I’ve ever tried to do is have quality at-bats,” Cooper said. “I’ve been hitting the ball hard, and sometimes it goes my way and sometimes it doesn’t. I’ve set high expectations for myself and for the team, and I just expect to try to get better with each at-bat.”

Overall, a sharp dividing line in offensive production is apparent. Of the nine regulars in the lineup, four are hitting over .310, while the other five are mired below .240.

The squad has also seen a significant decrease in power from a year ago, when it hit 56 home runs. This season, the Cats have launched just 16 round-trippers, with no batter contributing more than five.

“There’s always room for improvement,” Cooper said. “But we played awesome against UCLA. It showed if we put our minds to it, we can play with the best. We just have to work on focusing on every game, and we can go all the way.”

Reach Andrew Simon at [email protected]