Softball: Newcomers look to even out, focus NU’s performance

Colin Becht

Mari Majam comes from a softball family, one whose reputation might be a little daunting for the freshman outfielder.

Her oldest sister Allison was a two-time All-Mountain West Conference team member at Colorado State, and her other older sister, Kelly, led the NCAA in home runs with 30 last season.

“It’s really inspiring to watch (Kelly),” Mari said. “I’d love to live up to what she’s done, but I’m trying to make a name for myself.”

So far, Mari seems on pace to do just that. Through the first six games of the season, in which Northwestern is 4-2, she leads the Wildcats in RBIs with 10, while hitting .313 and slugging .563.

Kelly, who is playing in her sophomore season at Hawaii, better take notice.

“I’m not really worried about trying to be just as good as her,” Mari said. “We’re sisters. There’s a little friendly competition.”

Mari is just one of several freshmen who will be a key contributor to an NU squad looking to redeem last season’s uneven performance. Despite beginning the season ranked No. 15, the Cats failed to make the NCAA tournament after posting a 25-23 record, including six mercy-rule losses.

“It’s a feeling that we never want to have again,” said junior infielder Adrienne Monka, who leads the team with an .813 slugging percentage. “We’re striving every day to work towards having no doubt at the end of the season.”

Last year, NU struggled with consistency that led to a 10-8 conference record. Though the Cats were capable of being run-ruled, they also did their fair share of routing, mercy-ruling five opponents. Still, with the fourth-worst earned run average in the Big Ten, the Cats’ season concluded early.

“There is no doubt that we are all very, very motivated after how we finished last year,” coach Kate Drohan said. “We are a program that works and expects to be in the postseason on an annual basis.”

In addition to Majam, fellow freshman Marisa Bast has made an early impact, taking over at second base for Nicole Pauly, who graduated ranked third in NU history in homers and RBIs. Bast, however, hasn’t been much of a drop off, hitting for third-highest batting average and slugging percentage on the team.

“What makes this unique this year is the fact that we have seven freshmen, and they bring an awful lot of energy and enthusiasm,” Drohan said. “They are staying calm in the moment, and they’re excited about their opportunity.”

Freshman pitcher Sammy Albanese has had a rough start to her college career after making quite a name for herself in high school by matching a California state record with 10 consecutive no-hitters. The righty has posted a 5.60 ERA in five innings of work this season, but senior pitcher Jessica Smith said Albanese will soon make the adjustment to the college level.

“She’s a very motivated and competitive person,” Smith said. “She definitely came to play.”

Smith and sophomore Meghan Lamberth have shared the bulk of the pitching duties, trying to make up for last year’s effort, in which NU pitchers walked the third-most batters in the conference. This year’s pitching staff has been far more accurate with just 15 walks in 40 innings, a feat that has made Drohan proud.

“We’re just not giving up bases like we did last year,” she said.

Much of Smith and Lamberth’s new success has stemmed from the teachings of new pitching coach Courtnay Foster. Foster has built on the pitch repertoire of her players, introducing screw balls and rise balls to their arsenal.

“Only one pitch is the same out of five,” Smith said. “It’s definitely the best and biggest challenge I’ve taken on, and I’m really happy with it so far.”

Those new pitches have helped the pitching staff lower its ERA to 3.44, averaging nearly a strikeout per inning.

“It’s one thing to learn a new pitch, it’s another thing to be confident and throw that pitch with a full count with a big game on the line,” Drohan said. “Their confidence has certainly grown. They just have more tools in their toolbox, and those new pitches are game ready.”

The Cats have kept up their assertiveness on the base paths, led by speedsters Emily Allard, Kristin Scharkey and Robin Thompson. NU has been perfect in steal attempts, successfully swiping 15 bags without getting thrown out once.

“Our standards are to work together as a unit, to play really fast-paced, very aggressive softball,” Drohan said.

Allard, the sophomore shortstop, has picked up seven steals after getting 34 last season. Hitting in the leadoff spot, Allard has consistently left the power hitters with RBI opportunities, leading the team with a .609 batting average. She set a school-record with five hits in NU’s 11-4 win over UC Davis on Friday.

After losing four of five games of their final games last season, NU returns committed to moving on.

“Our approach this year is not about fixing last year,” Drohan said. “This year we are here to right a wrong.”

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