Defense key to weekend’s games

Adam Fusfeld

Though the regular season is technically over for No. 12 Northwestern, many players feel as though the season starts heating up now.

The top-seeded Wildcats host the Big Ten tournament thanks to winning a coin toss against conference co-champion Michigan. NU finished the regular season with a 34-13 record, winning 18 of its 20 conference games and going undefeated in 13 games at Sharon J. Drysdale field.

“So far we’ve had a great season,” senior Darcy Sengewald said, “But it’s definitely not over. What we built so far is only going to help us in the postseason, and winning the Big Ten will really launch us into the postseason.”

The tournament starts Thursday and NU is set to face eighth-seeded Ohio State (33-22, 7-13). The Buckeyes defeated the Cats in the 2007 Big Ten championship game, 2-1.

But the new season has brought new results. NU swept this year’s series at Ohio State, taking both games of the doubleheader early last month without allowing a single runner to cross home plate.

In the first game, sophomore Lauren Delaney threw a no-hitter and struck out 11 in the Cats 7-0 victory. Delaney allowed three hits in the second game, but struck out 14 in a 6-0 win.

Freshman Michelle Batts powered the offense with a home run and four RBIs during the series. Sophomore Nicole Pauly, junior Erin Dyer and freshman Kelly Quinn added home runs of their own in the two-game set.

Junior shortstop Tammy Williams, who was named a top 10 finalist for USA Softball Player of the Year on Wednesday, was 3-for-5 with two RBIs, three runs and two walks.

But NU’s focus for this weekend will be on neither offense nor pitching. It will instead be on defense. Coach Kate Drohan stressed the importance of defense – as she does before every game.

“The key to our success in this Big Ten season was our defense,” Drohan said. “That’s something that we’ll continue to focus on. Right now, I like our athleticism and I like our aggressiveness (on defense).”

NU ranks in the middle of the pack in the conference in fielding percentage, and has turned the second-fewest double plays in the Big Ten. Playing on their home field should help the Cats, as they are accustomed to defending on the familiar surface.

“I’m totally excited,” Delaney said. “There’s no other place I’d rather play than here.”

If NU leaves Sharon J. Drysdale Field victorious on Thursday, the team will face the winner of the Minnesota-Purdue game Friday. The Cats defeated both of those squads twice by a combined score of 40-12. Thanks to winning the coin toss, NU avoided a potential match up with Iowa – a team that defeated both the Cats and No. 6 Michigan – in the semifinals.

A victory in Friday’s game advances NU to the conference championship Saturday, where Michigan could await. The teams split their two games in Ann Arbor, Mich., but the Cats would relish the opportunity to face them in Evanston.

“Everybody wants to play on their home field,” Drohan said. “It’s just silly luck that we got it, literally. But it’s nice to keep (the players) in class and keep them comfortable and stick to our routine.”

Luck may have enabled NU to host the Big Ten tournament, but a conference championship on its home field would just be the beginning. A conference championship is not enough in the eyes of Delaney.

“Our expectations are to win a national championship,” she said.

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