Cats sit on cusp of conference title (Softball)

Andrew Simon

The state of Michigan was unkind to the Wildcats last season. First, the Michigan State Spartans came to Evanston and handed the Cats their first Big Ten loss. A week later, Northwestern traveled to Michigan and was swept by the Wolverines.

The 14th-ranked Cats (36-11, 14-3 Big Ten) got a shot at both opponents on the road this past weekend, with improved results. NU beat Michigan State (34-22, 9-9) on Friday and Saturday, before splitting a Sunday doubleheader against No. 12 Michigan (34-13, 12-4).

The Cats maintained their lead in the Big Ten and can clinch the title with either a win or a Michigan loss. Both squads have two conference games remaining.

“We played hard, and I think we have all the pieces of the puzzle,” coach Kate Drohan said. “I’m really pleased with our position in the Big Ten.”

The Cats benefited from two great starts by junior Eileen Canney, who continued riding the momentum from her NCAA record-tying strikeout performance a week ago against Minnesota. In Friday’s 5-0 win, she tossed a one-hitter and didn’t walk a batter in a complete game shutout. In a 2-1 victory in Sunday’s first game, she another complete game, giving up just an unearned run on three hits and three walks.

In both of Canney’s starts, the Cats came up big in the field, led by third baseman Darcy Sengewald. The sophomore made several and stifled many opposing batters’ attempts to bunt their way on base against Canney.

“This weekend, the team played great defense,” Canney said. “There were some amazing plays behind me, and that makes it a lot easier to pitch.”

Canney also appeared in the other two games in relief of senior Courtnay Foster. In NU’s 9-4 win Saturday against Michigan State, Canney entered with her team trailing 4-2 in the third and shut the Spartans down the rest of the way as the Cats rallied.

In Game 2 on Sunday, Drohan brought Canney into a scoreless game in the sixth inning, after Michigan led off the frame with a double. This time, Canney couldn’t stop the bleeding, and the only two runs of the game scored on a pair of RBI singles. Still, Drohan has a lot of confidence in her pitchers.

“In my book, (Canney) has always been an ace,” she said. “I just think now people around the country are realizing it. But in terms of my staff, I feel like I have two aces.”

While the NU offense struggled against Michigan All-American Jennie Ritter, it looked impressive earlier in the weekend against Michigan State. Most importantly, the Cats made the Spartans pay for pitching around first baseman Garland Cooper, who walked six times in seven plate appearances in the series. On Saturday, she didn’t see a single strike in four at-bats, but scored three runs.

“It really goes against what they’re trying to do when they walk her,” said catcher Jamie Dotson, who hits behind Cooper and notched three RBIs in the game. “It pumps me up the most because it puts me in clutch situations, and that’s my job, to get RBIs. I love it.”

Reach Andrew Simon at [email protected]