Cats earn best ever NCAA bid (Softball)

Andrew Simon

Despite suffering a tough 6-0 loss in Saturday’s Big Ten tournament championship against Michigan, Northwestern still earned its highest seed ever in the NCAA tournament Sunday.

The tournament selection committee awarded No. 11 NU the fourth seed in the 64-team event beginning Friday.

The Cats will play host to one of the regionals, which also includes Notre Dame, Southern Illinois and UC-Santa Barbara. NU will play Southern Illinois on Friday at 2:30 p.m. in their first contest of the double-elimination round.

The team gathered Sunday afternoon in a conference room at Anderson Hall for the selection show, which aired on ESPNews. Most players guessed the Cats would receive around a seven or eight seed.

Then came the announcement that NU had earned the four seed, the best in school history and a significant improvement over last year’s nine seed.

“The room just absolutely erupted,” senior center fielder Sheila McCorkle said. “We were really excited but definitely surprised.”

The Cats beat the Fighting Irish 3-2 in a game earlier this season and have played them several times in recent years.

“It’s going to be a difficult region with three quality opponents,” coach Kate Drohan said. “It’s interesting that we’re going to face Notre Dame because I think we’re slowly developing a rivalry with them. It’ll be fun.”

NU last faced UC-Santa Barbara in the 2004 NCAA Regionals and came away with an 8-1 victory. But the Cats have never met the Salukis during the Kate Drohan era.

“(Southern Illinois) has an excellent pitcher who has a lot of experience,” Drohan said. “They’re very athletic and well coached. I think it’s going to be a tough game.”

Last season, NU had to travel to South Bend, Ind., for its Regional after it was offered a chance to host but had to decline due to construction around Sharon J. Drysdale Field. This season, it was able to accept the invitation after hosting the Big Ten tournament this past weekend.

The Cats entered that event with the top seed but weren’t able to translate it into their first tournament crown since 1982.

After rain wiped out the first day of games, NU cruised to victories against Illinois on Friday and Ohio State on Saturday. Pitchers Eileen Canney and Courtnay Foster combined to give up just one run in the two wins, as the Cats advanced to face the Wolverines in the final round.

“We felt good about the Michigan game,” McCorkle said. “There was certainly no foreshadowing that we were going to play as badly as we did.”

The team’s confidence went for naught against All-American hurler Jennie Ritter, who shut out the Cats on just two hits and a walk. Ritter retired NU in order in five of her seven innings of work.

Meanwhile, the Cats’ defense betrayed them, as all six runs Canney allowed were unearned due to four NU errors.

“Our defense’s execution wasn’t where we would like it the whole weekend,” Drohan said. “It’s something we’ve talked about as a team and that we’ll address in practice.”

Reach Andrew Simon at [email protected]