Softball: Northwestern searching for stability in leadoff spot ahead of Oklahoma tournament

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Softball: Northwestern searching for stability in leadoff spot ahead of Oklahoma tournament

Rachel Lewis pulls up at first base. The sophomore has been one of several players the Wildcats have used in the leadoff spot this season.

Rachel Lewis pulls up at first base. The sophomore has been one of several players the Wildcats have used in the leadoff spot this season.

Daily file photo by Katie Pach

Rachel Lewis pulls up at first base. The sophomore has been one of several players the Wildcats have used in the leadoff spot this season.

Daily file photo by Katie Pach

Daily file photo by Katie Pach

Rachel Lewis pulls up at first base. The sophomore has been one of several players the Wildcats have used in the leadoff spot this season.

Benjamin Rosenberg, Assistant Sports Editor

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For the last four years, no one asked who was going to lead off for Northwestern.

Sabrina Rabin was as pure a leadoff hitter as it gets, finishing her career second in program history in stolen bases, second in runs scored, third in hits and fourth in batting average.

With Rabin graduating, however, the Wildcats (14-4) have used a by-committee approach at the top of the lineup this year. Freshman center fielder Skyler Shellmyer seemed the most logical candidate. Shellmyer, like Rabin, is a speedy, left-handed hitting slapper, and she led off NU’s first four games.

“She has shown us a lot over the course of the last month in terms of digging in, settling in,” coach Kate Drohan said. “I like her pitch selection and the adjustments she’s made with that. She’s a legitimate three-tool player up there. She can bunt, slap and hit.”

But those tools did not manifest themselves immediately, as Shellmyer had just one hit through the team’s first four games. At that point, she was moved to the bottom of the order and sophomore second baseman Rachel Lewis hit leadoff.

Lewis drew plenty of walks, but her batting average has been well below .200 for most of the year, so last Saturday against North Dakota State, she too was moved down in the lineup and senior left fielder Morgan Nelson led off.

Nelson was 0-for-4 in that game, prompting Drohan to give Shellmyer another chance to lead off on Sunday against Montana. Shellmyer responded with the first multi-hit game of her career, bunting for a hit in the first inning before slapping a single past the crashing third baseman in the third.

“That’s my goal, to be a leadoff hitter,” Shellmyer said. “Getting on my first at-bat, that was a struggle for me at the beginning of the season. It was a big improvement for me.”

If Shellmyer is able to get on base more consistently, it will create plenty of RBI opportunities for the hitters behind her. Lewis is showing signs of breaking out of her slump, with home runs in her last two games. Freshman designated hitter Nikki Cuchran and freshman catcher Jordyn Rudd are giving NU plenty of production in the middle of the order.

No matter how the Cats structure the lineup, their offense will be tested this weekend at a tournament in Norman, Oklahoma. NU will play five games in three days, including two against the host and No. 3 Sooners (16-2). The Cats’ other opponents are Drake (11-9), Tulsa (11-7) and Grand Canyon (12-8). Oklahoma’s team ERA of 1.45 is 10th nationally, while Grand Canyon’s 2.20 mark is 42nd.

NU has actually pitched better than all of those teams, with the Cats’ 1.26 team ERA ranking sixth in the country. Freshman Danielle Williams and sophomore Kenna Wilkey have carried NU’s staff, while junior Morgan Newport and senior Kaley Winegarner have also been solid in limited work. The Cats’ arms will also be challenged this weekend, however, especially by a Sooners team that is scoring more than seven runs per game.

“This is a great opportunity for our team, and we’ll be challenged every game,” Drohan said. “Every pitcher we face is going to be really tough. Our team is really excited about it, and I think they’re ready for it.”

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

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