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Softball: Northwestern seeks bounce-back year, NCAA Tournament return

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Kaley Winegarner throws a pitch. The junior leads a deep Wildcats pitching staff into the 2018 season.

Kaley Winegarner throws a pitch. The junior leads a deep Wildcats pitching staff into the 2018 season.

Daily file photo by Allie Goulding

Daily file photo by Allie Goulding

Kaley Winegarner throws a pitch. The junior leads a deep Wildcats pitching staff into the 2018 season.

Benjamin Rosenberg, Reporter

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After missing the NCAA Tournament last season for the first time since 2013, Northwestern will lean on a veteran core this year as it looks to return to the postseason.

The Wildcats lost just three members of last year’s team that finished a disappointing 25-29 and are adding five freshmen to the roster.

NU returns all four pitchers from last year. The addition of a freshman pitcher Kenna Wilkey will give the Cats an unusually deep staff, as most teams carry just three pitchers on their roster. Four of NU’s top five hitters from 2017 also return.

“We have a lot of key veterans,” coach Kate Drohan said. “They’ll be playing some different roles defensively, but I’m counting on their experience offensively to really anchor our lineup and take it up to another level (by) adding some power.”

Offensively, senior shortstop Marissa Panko and senior center fielder Sabrina Rabin will likely be the stars. Panko hit .329 last season and stole 14 bases in 17 attempts. Rabin, the Cats’ leadoff hitter, was even better, hitting .354 and leading the team with 47 runs scored. She also led the Big Ten in stolen bases with 27.

Junior infielder Morgan Nelson and junior pitcher Kenzie Ellis also had solid seasons at the plate, particularly in the power categories. Ellis topped NU in RBIs last year with 31.

“I always take my role very seriously about trying to start the offense, but we’ve got a lot of really great players who are coming up,” Rabin said. “We definitely have a lot more speed, (and) it makes the other team have to rush a little bit more.”

On the pitching front, junior Kaley Winegarner emerged as the Cats’ ace late last season. She finished 10-6 with a 2.85 ERA, holding opponents to a .245 batting average. Winegarner will be joined by Ellis, sophomore Morgan Newport and senior Nicole Bond, all of whom performed adequately last year, as well as Wilkey.

Drohan said she wants NU’s pitchers to be comfortable in any role — starting, middle relief and closing games — and Winegarner thinks they are up to the challenge.

“I think our pitching staff is going to be really strong this year,” Winegarner said. “In different situations, each pitcher is going to have something different to offer, so it’s going to be a very dynamic team.”

As they usually do, the Cats have scheduled a difficult non-conference schedule to prepare them for Big Ten play. NU opens the season this weekend at the Kajikawa Classic in Tempe, Arizona, playing five games in three days.

The Cats open on Friday against No. 7 Arizona, and later that day play San Diego State, which received votes in the preseason Top 25 rankings. NU will then play what should be easier games against Boise State and fellow Big Ten member Indiana on Saturday before taking on South Dakota on Sunday.

“It’s about us getting ready to compete at the national level early on in the year,” Drohan said. “We have to get out of the gates fast, play a really tough, strong conference schedule and then make a good run in the postseason.”

Email: benjaminrosenberg2021@u.northwestern.edu
Twitter: @bxrosenberg

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