Softball: Northwestern hosts hard-hitting Illinois in midweek twinbill


Daily file photo by Andrew Golden

The Cats listen as Caryl Drohan gives instructions. NU will play its final two home games of the regular season Tuesday.

Benjamin Rosenberg, Assistant Sports Editor


Kate Drohan keeps saying she’s taking this final stretch of the regular season one game at a time. But with just two weeks remaining until the Big Ten Tournament, the bigger picture is becoming harder and harder to ignore.

No. 23 Northwestern sits all alone atop the conference standings, a mere half-game ahead of Michigan and 1.5 games ahead of Minnesota. With each victory, the Wildcats (36-7, 15-0 Big Ten) are drawing closer to their first Big Ten title since 2008, but as the Wolverines and Golden Gophers continue to keep pace, the drama continues to rise.

NU’s 18th-year coach, however, isn’t worried about that right now.

“As a team, we’ve been focusing on one game at a time,” Drohan said. “The thing that we’ve been talking about is leaving our record, streaks, anything like that in the locker room. We come out here and we’re here to play ball. We can reflect on it after a weekend, but now we shift gears, we get ready for Illinois on Tuesday.”

The Cats will play their final two home games of the regular season Tuesday against the Fighting Illini (27-17, 6-9). Illinois leads the Big Ten in batting average, slugging percentage, hits and total bases, and is second in home runs and runs scored.

Bella Loya has been the Fighting Illini’s best offensive player, with a .404/.472/.745 slash line, 12 home runs and 46 RBIs. But Illinois’ lineup is much deeper than just Loya — three other players are batting at or above .375, with two more hitting better than .300. The Fighting Illini average more than six runs per game.

Despite its sub-.500 conference record, Illinois has plenty of quality wins. The Fighting Illini beat a pair of ranked teams in Oklahoma State and Kentucky in the first weekend of the season. They also beat a Tulsa team currently in the top-25 in RPI, won two of three against a Wisconsin team that was ranked at the time and handed Minnesota its only Big Ten defeat.

Illinois had a chance to hand NU a favor last weekend against Michigan, but dropped a pair of one-run decisions en route to being swept. In Saturday’s loss, the Fighting Illini had a three-run lead in the seventh and were one strike away from victory, but the Wolverines rallied for a 9-8 win.

While they may have been scoreboard-watching at the time, the Cats are keeping the focus on themselves. Their pitching staff, led by freshman Danielle Williams, has a team ERA of 1.81, so they should be well-equipped to handle Illinois’ powerful lineup.

Even if the Fighting Illini are able to put up some runs, NU’s offense has scored 7.6 runs per game over its past five, so the Cats have the ability to win a slugfest. They lead the Big Ten in walks, a key reason why they swept Purdue last weekend while tallying more runs than hits in all three games.

“We talk about pitch selection all the time, we’ve talked about efficiency with our swings so we can track the ball longer before we decide (whether to swing),” Drohan said. “It puts a lot of pressure on an opposing team.”

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