Softball: Down and out: a look back at NU’s season

Colin Becht

Northwestern entered the 2010 season with the high expectations that accompany the No. 15 team in the nation. Having held a spot in the top 25 for 74 consecutive polls, such expectations were no surprise.

“Every team’s goal is to make it to the World Series, to be the national champions. Ours was no different,” senior infielder Nicole Pauly said. “We wanted to win a national championship. We wanted to make the NCAA tournament. We wanted to win the Big Ten.”

Instead, the surprise for the Wildcats was how far they finished from these goals. NU’s season concluded Sunday, not when the Cats were eliminated from the NCAA tournament-as had been the case for the past seven teams-but rather when the tournament selections were announced and NU was not in the bracket.

The Cats finished conference play with a record of 10-8, good enough for fourth place but a full 7.5 games out of first place and six games out of third.

“We made a lot of mistakes and we didn’t learn from those mistakes,” Pauly said. “We didn’t perform when we needed to. We didn’t beat teams that we needed to beat in order to make the NCAA tournament.”

Offensively, the Cats lived up to expectations. NU scored the fourth-most runs in the Big Ten and hit the third-most home runs.

NU also posed a threat on the base paths. The Cats stole 97 bags on the year, getting thrown out just more than 10 percent of the time.

NU’s pitching staff often struggled to keep up with all the run production. The trio of Lauren Delaney, Jessica Smith and Meghan Lamberth posted the fourth-highest ERA in the conference, due in part to the 164 walks the Cats issued, third most in the Big Ten. NU surrendered double digit runs in a game on eight occasions.

Still, even when the pitching came through, it often coincided with offensive struggles. Of NU’s 23 losses, nine came when the Cats allowed four runs or less.

“Both sides of the team weren’t working together well,” junior designated player Michelle Batts said. “It’s tough when both sides are off.”

The Cats’ preseason expectations were not entirely off, as they proved several times that they were capable of playing like a nationally competitive team. NU beat then-No. 12 California and then-No. 10 Stanford in February.

But less than a week after beating California, NU fell to a Pacific team that finished its season 24-30 and 10-11 in the Big West. The day after NU beat Stanford, it fell to Cal Poly, who also finished its season under .500.

“(We needed to) play every game like it could be your last no matter if it’s the first game of the season or if it’s a non-ranked team that you’ve never heard of before,” Batts said. “Just play every game like it’s against that No. 1 team in the country.”

In a similar display of inconsistency, the Cats followed a hot streak in which they won seven of eight games by dropping their next five. Looking to make a late season run, NU won four straight games in late April and early May, only to lose four of their final five games.

“When we needed to get a win, we didn’t get the win,” Pauly said. “When we were bleeding, we didn’t stop the bleeding. We didn’t come up with that big win.”

Pauly said the Cats slumped during their losing streaks because players became too concerned with getting a win rather than playing hard.

“When we just needed to focus on being aggressive, we were just focused on the outcome of the game,” she said. “That’s what did it for us.”

The season marked the first time since 2002 that NU did not make the NCAA tournament. It’s a feat the Cats are not eager to repeat.

“The feeling of not making the tournament is something that’s hard to swallow,” the departing senior Pauly said. “I hope the girls in the class below me see this and they learn from it.”

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