Softball: Northwestern prepares for Super Regional rematch with top-ranked Oklahoma


Daily file photo by Brian Meng

Morgan Newport readies for the pitch. The junior went 8-for-16 in last weekend’s NCAA Regional in Evanston.

Benjamin Rosenberg, Assistant Sports Editor


Strange as it may seem, a pair of blowout losses in March at the hands of Oklahoma proved to be a turning point in Northwestern’s season.

Before the Wildcats’ first trip to Norman, No. 16 NU (47-11, 21-2 Big Ten) was playing well, but it was clear the Cats were capable of much more. But after being thoroughly overmatched by the now-No. 1 Sooners (52-3, 18-0 Big 12), NU went on a roll.

The Cats won 25 of their next 26 games, including 20 in a row, to surge into Big Ten title contention and ultimately earn a top-16 national seed. Now, after winning the Evanston Regional on their home turf, they will return to Norman for the NCAA Super Regionals, with a trip to the Women’s College World Series on the line.

“It’s very fortunate that we’ve played there already this year,” coach Kate Drohan said. “In terms of understanding their venue, they’ve got a great crowd, they have a great atmosphere. Just being familiar with their team, I think it’s going to help us out a lot, especially with our younger players. They’re an excellent team, and we’re excited about the challenge.”

While NU is a talented team, Oklahoma’s statistics jump off the page. The Sooners rank first nationally in batting average (.359), ERA (1.10), on-base percentage (.449), slugging percentage (.661), fielding percentage (.987) and shutouts (26).

Oklahoma’s individual numbers are equally gaudy. Sydney Romero, the younger sister of Michigan legend Sierra Romero, is hitting .429 with 18 home runs and 53 RBIs. Caleigh Clifton is hitting .414 with 16 long balls and 47 driven in. Grace Green and Jocelyn Alo are also each hitting above .380 with at least 14 homers and 47 RBIs.

Cats freshman pitcher Danielle Williams and the rest of NU’s staff will have to rise to the challenge. Pitching coach Michelle Gascoigne, a former national champion with the Sooners, said she has been impressed with Williams’ maturity.

“It never ceases to amaze me,” Gascoigne said. “There’s times where I have to remind myself that this is the first time she’s doing what she’s doing out there. She comes prepared and consistent every day.”

The Cats’ offense might be challenged even more than the pitching staff. Giselle Juarez is widely considered one of the best pitchers in the country, yet her 1.15 ERA is the third-best on her team. Juarez threw nine scoreless innings in Oklahoma’s two previous wins over NU, and Mariah Lopez and Shannon Saile have also been stellar in the circle.

Thus, the Cats will have to get some timely hits to manufacture runs against the Sooners. Freshman designated hitter Nikki Cuchran and junior right fielder Morgan Newport both broke out of lengthy slumps last weekend. Cuchran had seven hits in her last 13 at-bats, including a tie-breaking two-run single in the final game of the Evanston Regional against Louisville.

Newport finished 8-for-16 in the regionals, including a four-hit game Saturday night against Southern Illinois and a clutch two-run double in the clincher.

“I tried to let go of my previous at-bats that I had held onto,” Newport said. “I made some physical adjustments, seeing the ball deeper and having more time to decide.”

Oklahoma had won 41 straight games entering the championship round of its regional, but Wisconsin, a team NU swept in mid-April, scored a shocking 2-1 upset in the first game last Sunday, handing the Sooners their first loss since February. Oklahoma rebounded to beat the Badgers in the “if-necessary” game to advance.

The Cats, however, are staying focused on themselves, and associate head coach Caryl Drohan echoed her sister in saying their previous experience in Norman can only help. A series win this weekend would mean NU’s first trip to Oklahoma City since 2007.

“When you have hitters that are young and it’s the first time they’re seeing pitches move like that, when you try and explain it to them they may not understand, and then they experience it,” she said. “That’s what those games taught us, and that’s why we were able to go on such a great run. I thought we did a great job from that point forward.”

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Twitter: @bxrosenberg

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