Softball: NU poised to put a ring on it?

Matt Forman

Northwestern has put a new meaning on staying loose.

Fresh off a dominating 9-1 win over Michigan State in the opening game of Wednesday’s doubleheader, NU began to prepare for its ensuing game.

Ace junior pitcher Lauren Delaney warmed up in the bullpen. Sophomore infielder Robin Thompson played pepper on the outfield grass. The grounds crew re-lined the field.

The rest of the team? They took a different approach to preparing for game two of the twin bill.

As NU hosted its Wildcat Karaoke, the team stood outside of its dugout at Sharon J. Drysdale field, singing and dancing to Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It).”

“Our team certainly doesn’t take ourselves too seriously,” coach Kate Drohan said. “That gives you a good feel of their personality.”

If the dancing wasn’t a good enough example, junior centerfielder Kelly Dyer bobbed in the on-deck circle, and sophomore designated player Michelle Batts played the air guitar on her bat between innings.

“We just have fun,” Dyer said. “That’s us being us. If we don’t have fun, we play worse.”

Everything is better when you win. Since the start of the Big Ten season two weeks ago, the Cats have not lost a game. They’ve won 13 of the last 14, including nine in a row.

And the wins have come in dominating fashion. Through six conference games against Michigan, Penn State and Michigan State, NU has outscored its opponents by a combined 31 runs. A season ago, the Cats beat those opponents by a combined 11 runs.

NU’s strong Big Ten start came on the heels of a 13-7 record in non-conference play. Of course, the early season schedule included games against nine ranked opponents, giving No. 8 NU the chance to play against the nation’s best. Still, Dyer said the team was pressing, starting to force things and playing too tight.

What a difference one month makes. It all starts with a distinct attitude.

“It’s about energy,” Drohan said. “It’s about effort. And our team loves to compete, it’s part of team’s nature. It’s the fabric of our team.”

Now, with Delaney and senior shortstop Tammy Williams breaking school records every time they toe the field, where does this team stack up in Drohan’s tenure?

While the eighth-year coach opted not to compare her squads, Williams did not shy away from staking this team’s position in her four-year career, which included two trips to the College World Series. NU fell in the title game in 2006 to Arizona, and finished third in 2007 after falling to Tennessee.

“Just the way we play the game makes us more talented (from the previous season),” Williams said.

And for good reason. Each of those College World Series teams reached 50-plus wins, and had 20 wins on or by April 1. With the pair of wins Wednesday against the Spartans, the 2009 team became Drohan’s third such squad to reach that mark.

Williams has been on all three of those teams. The leader of NU’s offense went 5-for-7 with five RBIs on Wednesday, highlighting a potent lineup that produced a combined 19 hits, 19 RBIs and totaled 10 walks in the double dip.

Don’t forget about the circle. Using a riseball, curveball and fastball repertoire, Delaney has thrown 96 consecutive innings. Her dominance over that span lowered her season earned run average to 2.16.

If staying loose means having fun, the Cats have developed a contagious confidence level.

“I think we have (made a statement), starting 6-0,” said junior Nicole Pauly, who chipped in four hits and five RBIs. “We have some tough games ahead, and I think we’re going to keep rolling.”

If Pauly and the rest of her teammates keep rolling, the Cats should vie for a ring on their finger in Oklahoma City this June.

Deputy sports editor Matt Forman is a Medill sophomore. He can be reached at [email protected]