Softball: Wildcats head to Chapel Hill for inaugural Big Ten/ACC Challenge

Andrea+Filler+waits+on+base.+The+senior+shortstop+hit+a+team-leading+three+home+runs+in+Northwestern%E2%80%99s+first+five+games+last+weekend.

Daily file photo by Lauren Duquette

Andrea Filler waits on base. The senior shortstop hit a team-leading three home runs in Northwestern’s first five games last weekend.

Melissa Haniff, Reporter


Softball


As Northwestern heads east to continue its season, it will break ground on a new tradition.

The Cats (3-2) will face two ACC teams this weekend, North Carolina (2-4) and Boston College (3-3), playing both teams twice over the weekend series. While NU takes on the Tar Heels and Eagles, other Big Ten and ACC teams will battle it out at multiple ACC campuses across the East Coast in the first Big Ten/ACC Challenge.

Coach Kate Drohan emphasized the importance of non-conference play for both the team and the Cats softball program overall.

“Playing a really competitive non-conference schedule has been a staple of our program,” Drohan said. “We faced against both Tennessee and Oregon (last weekend) really good team speed and left handed hitters … for us to see that in our first weekend is key to making adjustments. Our team loves playing a very competitive schedule, that’s why they come here.”

Drohan’s emphasis on non-conference scheduling is no joke — last season, the Cats had the sixth toughest non-conference strength of schedule in the nation. This year, 36 of the Cats’ 50 games are against non-Big Ten opponents that finished in the top-100 of the RPI in 2015.

Both North Carolina and Boston College are anchored by strong pitching and will look to slow down a Cats team that set three school offensive records in its first weekend of play. Tar Heels’ junior Kendra Lynch pitched two shutouts last weekend, and went undefeated in 2015 with an ERA of 4.86 while appearing in 24 games. NU’s other ACC opponent, Boston College, will be led by sophomore Jessica Dreswick, who currently ranks third in the ACC with an ERA of 0.90 after appearing in six games.

While the pitching they’ll face will pose a challenge, the Cats displayed a penchant for turning runners on base into runs en route to 49 team RBIs in NU’s first weekend. Senior second baseman Brianna LeBeau has been clutch in RBI situations to start the season, hitting 3-for-4 with five RBIs in pinch-hit situations, and Drohan said she hopes the rest of the team can follow her lead with big hits in high leverage moments.

And although the Cats recognize the talent they will be facing on the mound, Drohan said her squad is focused on making opposing pitchers work hard for outs.

“Really the key is quality at-bats and making the pitchers work,” Drohan said. “It’s about looking for your pitch, controlling the situation. Often times you win games by getting key hits but also by advancing runners with good quality outs and making the pitcher work.”

At the plate, the Eagles will be led by senior outfielder Megan Cooley, who hit .278 with 36 runs in 2015, and sophomore infielder Chloe Sharabba, who currently leads all Eagles in batting average, runs and hits after six games.

Meanwhile, the Tar Heels boast one of the country’s best shortstops in senior Kristen Brown. Brown was an NFCA third-team All-American last year after setting single-season school records with 24 home runs and 67 RBIs.

As the Cats focus on making the defensive improvements needed this week to shut down both ACC offenses, sophomore catcher Sammy Nettling said she is excited about the upcoming competition.

“Every conference is a little bit different,” Nettling said. “It’s great preparation and great competition for the offseason and for the Big Ten. That’s really what it’s all about.”

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @melissahaniff