Softball: The Daily’s writers ruminate about winning streak, Big Ten title chances


Daily file photo by Andrew Golden

Morgan Nelson prepares to take off from first base. The senior has been a key component of the Wildcats’ offense this season.

Coming off a dramatic sweep of Wisconsin last weekend, Northwestern (33-7, 12-0 Big Ten) is riding an 11-game winning streak and is all alone in first place in the Big Ten. With three weeks remaining in the regular season, The Daily’s softball writers got together to discuss NU’s chances to win its first conference title since 2008.

1. The Cats’ pitching staff has seen marked improvement from last season. What’s made NU’s staff so effective this year?

Benjamin Rosenberg: The emergence of freshman Danielle Williams elevates the Cats’ pitching staff, and indeed the entire team, to another level. Williams has thrown more innings than the rest of the team combined and leads the Big Ten in ERA. Since conference play began, Williams has been even better, having thrown five complete-game shutouts.

Sophomore Kenna Wilkey led the rotation last year and is NU’s No. 2 pitcher now, and junior Morgan Newport has mostly played the outfield but has been solid in limited work in the circle. Senior Kaley Winegarner, back from an ACL injury that kept her out nearly all of last season, has also stepped in when the Cats have needed her.

Andrew Golden: Last year, the Cats relied heavily on Wilkey and didn’t have a lot of answers in the circle after that. This year, NU’s pitching staff has some of the best depth it has seen in the the past few years. In addition to Wilkey lowering her ERA to 2.92 this season, Williams has been brilliant all year and currently sits with a 1.16 ERA and 21 wins. She has been the team’s workhorse all season and has continued to prove that she can step up for the Cats in many high-pressure moments.

NU has also enjoyed having a few veteran pitchers, Newport and Winegarner, to bolster their rotation when coach Kate Drohan sees fit. Pitching was at a premium for the Cats last year, but a year later they have one of the deepest rotations in the Big Ten.

2. NU has gotten steady production throughout the lineup. Which players have stood out offensively?

Sophia Scanlan: Though her .224 batting average might not suggest it, sophomore Rachel Lewis is one of the Cats’ strongest hitters. Just last Saturday, she hit two home runs and drove in five in a doubleheader. Her .603 slugging percentage leads the team by more than 75 points, and her 13 home runs also tie her for second in the Big Ten. Statistics aside, Lewis has shown her ability to come up big for NU in clutch situations, and her defensive job at second base has also been top-notch.

Senior Morgan Nelson has been another critical piece of the Cats’ offense. She, too, can hit the ball deep, but she’s also able to draw the walk after long at-bats, which likely contributes to her team-leading .441 on-base percentage.

Rosenberg: The freshmen have been driving the offensive production. Not that the veterans haven’t done their job — Lewis and Nelson are a formidable tandem at the top of the order. But a trio of rookies — shortstop Maeve Nelson, designated hitter Nikki Cuchran and catcher Jordyn Rudd — are all slugging above .500 and getting on base at better than a .400 clip. Maeve Nelson is second on the team behind Lewis with eight home runs, and Rudd has a team-leading 12 doubles and 35 RBIs.

Newport, having transitioned from a rotation pitcher to a starting outfielder, has also been one of the Cats’ strongest hitters. She occupies the critical fifth position in the lineup and has really taken to her offensive role, with more walks than strikeouts for the season. She has also developed a real knack for driving the ball to the opposite field.

3. The Cats currently have a half-game lead on Michigan and a 1.5-game edge on Minnesota. Can they win the title for the first time in 11 years?

Golden: NU has a pretty favorable schedule for the rest of the season. They face two middle-of-the-pack teams in Purdue and Illinois the next week at home, which the Cats should be able to handle with ease. After that, they play Michigan State, which is just 3-9 in the Big Ten.

The Cats’ last series at Minnesota will likely determine the conference champion. The winner of the series could win the conference, or if neither team sweeps and the Wolverines sweep their opponent, Michigan could end that weekend with the championship. Ultimately, I think NU’s pitching puts it over the top. NU has a deeper pitching staff than Michigan or Minnesota, and I think the staff’s versatility will give them the edge in the race for the championship.

Scanlan: I also think the Cats have a good chance for the title. Not only does their steady pitching staff stand out, but their defense also sets them apart with an overall fielding percentage of .979, the second best in the Big Ten. Infielders like Lewis and sophomore Mac Dunlap have played particularly well in recent games, and Drohan said the team’s defense was a major reason for their sweep over Wisconsin.

Additionally, NU’s lineup doesn’t drop off once it gets to the last few hitters. It was the bottom of the lineup that kept loading the bases in extra innings last weekend, and the walk-off home run came from senior Lily Novak, the No. 7 hitter. The depth of the Cats’ lineup and their steady presence in the field will help them prevail against tough teams down the road.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @andrewcgolden

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @bxrosenberg

Email: [email protected]