Rosenberg: World Series an achievable goal for Northwestern softball


Daily file photo by Brian Meng

Danielle Williams throws a pitch. The sophomore will look to improve upon last season, when she had a 1.55 ERA.

Benjamin Rosenberg, Reporter


It’s a line Kate Drohan has used so often, it has almost lost its meaning.

“Our goal, year in and year out, for the last 18 years, has been to get to Oklahoma City.”

For those who have been around Northwestern’s coach for long enough, the line may seem strange — Drohan rarely talks so openly in public about the long term. But for the first time in at least a decade, her goal should not be taken lightly. The Wildcats should be open about reaching college softball’s promised land — because they have the pieces in place to get there.

Last year’s 47-13 record and Super Regionals appearance was something of a surprise. After NU graduated a seven-member senior class in 2018 that included four starting position players, many figured the Cats would get worse before they got better.

Instead, they had their best season since making four straight Super Regionals — including two Women’s College World Series — from 2005-08. That’s because they had freshmen fill nearly every void on the roster, and they had a group of upperclassmen who were more than happy to nurture them and help them grow.

Catcher Jordyn Rudd produced at an all-Big Ten level both behind and at the plate. Shortstop Maeve Nelson became one of NU’s main power sources while making huge strides defensively. Skyler Shellmyer’s speed was a major asset in center field, and she gave the Cats an instant shot of energy every time she made a play. Nikki Cuchran was a hitting machine, coming up clutch time and time again against top pitchers during the stretch run.

And then there was NFCA National Freshman of the Year Danielle Williams, who carried the pitching staff for most of the year, striking out nearly 10 batters per seven innings while compiling a 1.55 ERA.

All of those freshmen are now sophomores, with a year of college experience under their belts. They weren’t fazed by much a season ago, but nothing is new to them now. What’s more, they’ll be able to serve as mentors for another strong crop of freshmen, which includes catcher Ashley Schultz, outfielder Angela Zedak and pitcher Sydney Supple.

Williams will have more help in the circle than she did a year ago. Supple was a top-10 recruit in the country according to Softball America, junior Kenna Wilkey was a solid second option last season and seniors Morgan Newport and Kaley Winegarner pitched well in limited work. NU will also have Lauren Dvorak, who redshirted her true freshman season in 2019, at its disposal.

Here’s another scary thought for the rest of the Big Ten: the Cats got better as last season progressed. NU lost a few games early against teams like Loyola Marymount and DePaul that it likely would have won later on in the year.

Nelson is a perfect example of the Cats’ in-season growth. After starting slowly, she hit a team-best .329 in Big Ten play, with seven of her 11 home runs coming in conference games. And despite making 11 errors in NU’s first 22 contests, the shortstop did not commit a single error in conference play.

But Nelson, like many of her teammates, struggled down the stretch as the Cats faced some of the best pitchers in the country in May. Five of their six losses during that month were to Minnesota or Oklahoma, who both played in the World Series — and all five of those losses were shutouts. Nelson’s dropoff was especially significant, as she tallied just one hit in 12 May contests.

NU will learn from facing pitchers like Minnesota’s Amber Fiser and Oklahoma’s Giselle “G” Juarez. Veterans like the versatile Newport and junior second baseman Rachel Lewis will be big parts of NU’s leadership core. With returners at all but two positions, the Cats have the perfect combination of experience and youth to make a deep postseason run.

If last year’s mentality was “We Believe,” this year’s is “We Expect.” The Cats will not be catching anybody by surprise this season. They’ll be preparing for the postseason by facing seven of last season’s 16 NCAA regional hosts, including four World Series participants.

When the current seniors were freshmen, NU was a paltry 25-29, its worst record in Drohan’s 18-year tenure. The pace at which Drohan and her staff have turned this program back around is nothing short of remarkable.

All that’s left is that final step — getting to the sport’s biggest stage. And all of a sudden, that stage doesn’t seem so far away.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @bxrosenberg