NU rocketing forward (Softball)

Matt Forman

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Every good team needs a stopper at the front of its rotation.

The World Series champion Boston Red Sox had 20-game winner Josh Beckett. No. 6 Northwestern has sophomore ace Lauren Delaney.

Delaney (8-2) has pitched in 11 of the Wildcats’ 13 games while posting a 2.67 ERA. She has struck out 98 batters, 23 of which came last weekend in nearly 17 innings of work at the Coach B Classic.

“I was really pleased and I liked what I saw in the circle (from Delaney), going out and executing effectively last weekend,” coach Kate Drohan said.

After spending the first two weekends of its season on the West Coast, NU returned to its home state for the four-game tournament, which took place in Carbondale, Ill. The Cats (10-3) went 3-1 in the tournament, suffering their only loss against unranked Bradley, 4-0, on Saturday in the second game of the day-night doubleheader.

“We’ve learned a lot from each other as a team being together so much in these first three weekends,” junior starting shortstop Tammy Williams said. “Even in our losses, we’ve learned a lot. It’s always a good thing to learn those things early in the season and really progress off those losses.”

It was the first time since 1996 that NU participated in the Coach B Classic. The Cats’ three wins, all shutouts, came against Kansas, Western Illinois and Southern Illinois, by a combined score of 13-0.

In the Cats’ loss, freshman pitcher Jessica Smith surrendered four runs in 4.1 innings of work. Delaney held the Braves in check for the remaining 2.2 innings, allowing no runs on one hit. But Bradley pitcher Ashley Birdsong (5-1) kept the Cats off-balance in the batter’s box for seven innings.

“Offensively we had a tough time with a couple of the pitches she was throwing and we just didn’t make an adjustment,” Drohan said of Birdsong’s performance in the circle.

Birdsong allowed only four hits and whiffed 14, while walking only one in seven innings of work against a strong NU lineup that is hitting .281 collectively.

“I think we need to be more consistent, that’s really where our youth shows up,” Drohan said. “I think this weekend was a big step for us in learning that in both our wins and our loss.”

Despite struggling against Bradley in the only NU loss of the weekend, Smith rebounded against Western Illinois. She allowed three hits in five innings of work, while striking out four.

“Really I think a key this weekend was Jessica Smith getting in a rhythm,” Drohan said. I saw a lot of great things from her (Sunday) and I feel like she’s finally in stride now.”

Smith’s turnaround highlighted what Williams, a pre-season member of the USA Softball Player of the Year Watch List, felt was a theme for the team this weekend.

“I thought that everyone could have performed a little better because we weren’t really at our top level this weekend,” Williams said. “But (after the loss to Bradley) I felt like we really came back and played more like we always do, and that showed in our performance and our stats.”

That was especially true for Williams. She went hitless in the first game against Kansas (0 for 3) and responded by going 5 for 7 with two home runs and four runs batted in over the next three contests.

Meanwhile, freshman Robin Thompson shined defensively. In the sixth inning against Kansas, she made a running catch in foul territory down the third base line, flipped over fence and landed in the dugout. Thompson’s tough defensive play helped stall a potential Jayhawks rally in NU’s victory.

“It’s plays like that that show the kind of softball we play,” Drohan said. “We’ve always said that if it’s in the field of play, it should be a catch.”

The Cats won’t return to Illinois until the end of March, when they will play their first home game against Wisconsin. Until then, the Cats travel west again to play five games each in Long Beach, Calif., and Honolulu, Hawaii.

And when the team finally returns home, it will get to unveil a new field, much like the lacrosse team will in its home opener Friday.

“For sure when you play your first 23 games on the road, it’s nice to sleep in your own bed and play in front of your own fans,” Drohan said. “It is especially true with the facilities we’ve built on campus. It’s going to be a much more comfortable experience for our fans and we’re looking forward to it like I’m sure (the lacrosse team is).”


DAily file photoSophomore pitcher Lauren Delaney has racked up an 8-2 record for the No. 6 Wildcats, who sit at 10-3 this season after compiling a 3-1 mark at the Coach B Classic in Carbondale, Ill., over the weekend. Delaney has a 2.67 ERA and 98 strikeouts.