Matt Forman

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ee consecutive Women’s College World Series under Sharon Drysdale, for whom NU’s field is named. Now the Wildcats are hoping to repeat this feat under Kate Drohan, but they will have to do it without several key components from the past two seasons.

Garland Cooper and Eileen Canney, two of the best players in the program’s history, graduated after last season.

Cooper, a three-time Big Ten Player of the Year award winner, concluded her career in the top 20 in NCAA history in walks, intentional walks, home runs, RBIs and slugging percentage. She graduated with the Big Ten’s single-season (23) and career (55) home run records.

Canney finished her career at NU with a school-record 97 wins, 33 of which came in her final season. Canney struck out 386 batters last season, second in school history.

Cooper and Canney were among four seniors who helped guide the Cats to a 52-13 record and a third-place finish at the Women’s College World Series.

Last year’s class graduated as the winningest in NU history with 178 victories, but this year’s squad features only one senior.

So when the Cats, ranked sixth at the time, headed to the Kajikawa Classic in Tempe, Ariz., to face top-ranked Arizona and No. 3 Texas A&M, they knew they were going to be tested early.

The Cats answered the challenge with a 4-0 record, highlighted by a defeat of two-time defending national champion Arizona 8-5, NU’s first win in school history against Arizona. The Cats also defeated Texas A&M 8-7, Nebraska 8-6 and Idaho State 14-2.

Despite the fact that 12 of the 17 players on the team are freshmen and sophomores, junior starting shortstop Tammy Williams refuses to call the team young.

“After this weekend we decided that we’re never calling this team a young team again,” said Williams, who earned Big Ten Player of the Week and Louisville Slugger National Player of the Week after going 11 for 14 at the plate. “We came out and really attacked every team; it didn’t matter whether you’re a freshman or senior. Along with all the other upperclassmen, I think that our job is over. They know how to play.”

Of the 36 potential starting spots in the four games to start the season, 20 went to freshmen and sophomores.

Regardless of the age of her players, coach Kate Drohan approaches every season as a new experience. 2008 is no different.

“One thing we’ve been really clear about since (assistant coach Caryl Drohan) and I took over is that you never try to repeat anything and you never try to replace anyone,” Drohan said. “Basically our 2008 team is a different team than the previous six teams. We have different strengths, we have different weaknesses, and we have talent in different areas with different experience. Really we try to take inventory of that and put our best team out there. That’s kind of the way we approach every year.”

With such a different group of players and a new nucleus, Drohan, head coach since 2002, said the team would have a significantly different style of play this season.

“This team is probably our most athletic since I’ve been here. We have the most amount of speed and aggressive players. This is a very physical team and a team that really plays the game at a high level, a very fast pace. I like how we put pressure on the defenses early. I think we’ll create a lot of offense with that.”

NU’s high-powered offense scored 38 runs in its first four games, with a .390 batting average, .472 on-base percentage and .627 slugging percentage.

One of the offense’s biggest contributors figures to be sophomore second baseman Nicole Pauly, who earned Big Ten Freshman of the Year and First-Team All-Big Ten honors a year ago.

Pauly hits for both power and average out of the three-hole, highlighted by last season’s campaign, in which she hit .300 with 14 home runs.

Pauly’s spot in the order is critical because when opponents walk Tammy Williams, someone needs to come through in the clutch. Pauly did just that in the Kajikawa Classic, hitting .500 with six RBIs.

But Pauly can’t do it all by herself. Several members of NU’s versatile freshman class will be expected to contribute immediately.

Designated hitter Michelle Batts, who hits behind Pauly in the order, should help replace Cooper’s offensive prowess. Drohan plugged the left-handed, power-hitting Batts into the cleanup spot, and she has responded with three homers and 10 RBIs in nine games.

Batts flashed her potential when she hit a line-drive home run off of Texas A&M All-American ace Amanda Scarborough.

“She handled it beautifully and really showed a lot of maturity in her first at bats,” Drohan said. “It was especially impressive against the All-Americans we faced.”

Freshman pitcher Jessica Smith will also be expected to contribute early to the pitching rotation. Smith, 5-foot-9, is a tall pitcher who hits her spots accurately and has an arsenal of moving pitches, according to Drohan. Smith has pitched well in her three starts this season, posting a 1-0 record and a 3.42 ERA.

Smith, along with sophomore Lauren Delaney, is expected to fill the void left by Canney. Delaney went 3-0 to start the season, striking out 25 batters against Texas A&M and Arizona, a feat that would impress even Canney. A season ago Canney recorded only 10 strikeouts against the same two teams.

After last weekend’s Palm Springs Classic, Delaney sits at 6-2 with a 3.63 ERA and 75 strikeouts in 46.1 innings.

After a great opening weekend, NU jumped from sixth to second in the USA Today/NFCA Coaches’ Poll and netted its first-ever No. 1 votes in any poll. Rankings, however, don’t matter much to Drohan.

“Honestly it doesn’t mean a thing,” Drohan said. “It will have no bearing on a seed for the postseason and no bearing on how we finish in the Big Ten. It’s a way for us to be recognized for what we’ve done, but it absolutely has no impact on our future.”

Williams knows that while a 4-0 start is exciting, it is just one step along the way as the Cats seek their first national championship.

“We’ve got a lot of things going for us right now,” she said before the Cats posted a 3-2 record over the weekend. “We just need to focus and get a little bit better every day until June.”

Williams is one Cat who has seen NU’s success the last two seasons, and she expects this season to be just as special.

“We can definitely repeat the past two seasons’ success and even more,” she said. “Obviously our main goal is to win a national championship. We’re going to come out and approach every team the same way. Every team, every game matters.”