Softball: Northwestern concludes pre-conference season in Louisville with more mixed results


Daily file photo by Brian Meng

Nikki Cuchran takes a swing. The sophomore drove in five runs in NU’s four games in Louisville last weekend.

Benjamin Rosenberg, Reporter


Based purely on record, this was Northwestern’s best weekend of the season. But another frustrating finish against the only Power Five opponent the Wildcats faced shows they still have a long way to go.

NU (11-12) concluded its preconference season at the Red & Black Challenge in Louisville, Kentucky. And while the Cats took three games from mid-major opponents Oakland (7-11) and Evansville (11-11), a tough loss to the host Cardinals (10-13) put a damper on the weekend.

“We’ve been able to have pressure on our opponents, but we haven’t been able to put seven innings together,” coach Kate Drohan said. “We’ve been in a lot of really close ball games, and we need to learn as a team how to finish those games.”

NU improved to 9-0 against mid-majors, starting with a 5-1 win Friday over the Golden Grizzlies. Oakland pushed across a first-inning run thanks to three Cats errors, but graduate pitcher Kaley Winegarner settled down from there, allowing just the one unearned tally in five innings.

The Cats took the lead for good on sophomore Nikki Cuchran’s two-run single in the third, then added on in the sixth with a two-run blast by sophomore catcher Jordyn Rudd.

Winegarner improved to 4-0 with her solid start, lowering her ERA to a team-best 1.62. She pitched just 33.2 innings last season, her first year back from a torn ACL. But she’s been a big part of NU’s rotation in her fifth year and said she’s pitching with more confidence than ever.

“I feel stronger than I’ve felt in my past four years,” Winegarner said. “I have more command of my pitches, I have more velocity than I had before. Just like my team has my back, I have some moments like that (working around the errors) when I have their back.”

The Cats use four pitchers regularly, and when one falters, another is always ready to take her place. Winegarner put the first two Golden Grizzlies on base in the sixth, so sophomore Danielle Williams took over and promptly struck out the next three. Any thought of a comeback was erased.

“Danielle is such a different look than I am,” Winegarner said. “It really catches the lineup by surprise. It really keeps the other team on their toes, constantly making them adapt.”

NU closed the weekend with two run-rule wins, beating the Purple Aces 9-1 on Saturday evening behind a seven-run second. Junior second baseman Rachel Lewis had a couple big hits and Rudd’s bases-clearing triple broke the game wide open. Junior pitcher Kenna Wilkey allowed just one hit and struck out eight.

The Cats followed that up with their best offensive showing of the year in a rematch with Oakland on Sunday morning, scoring multiple runs in every inning of a 14-3 rout. Cuchran was 2-for-2 with three RBIs, sophomore shortstop Maeve Nelson hit a grand slam and freshman Emmie Farnam, in her first collegiate at-bat, crushed a pinch-hit, three-run home run to account for the final margin.

“I really liked our offensive production,” Drohan said. “We went in with a specific plan and our execution was on point. Our goal as an offense is to knock the pitcher out of the game and get to work on the next pitcher. I like where we are heading into the Big Ten season.”

But that offense struggled mightily Saturday afternoon in a 3-1 loss to Louisville — the team NU beat in dramatic fashion to win its NCAA Regional last May. Williams gave the Cats an early lead with a second-inning home run. The lead held until the fifth, but the Cardinals went ahead on Carmyn Greenwood’s two-run double down the left-field line, and NU was held hitless after Williams’ long ball.

The Cats are just 7-9 when they score first — strangely, they’re 4-3 when they don’t. But they’re a mere 2-12 against the Power Five, and seven of those losses were decided by one or two runs.

With final exams coming up, NU will take next weekend off, and it could not come at a better time. The Cats have been all over the country in the past month, from Arizona to Florida to California, and they’ll finally get to take the field in Evanston on March 20 in their conference opener against Michigan State.

“We’ll work on some specific in-game adjustments,” Drohan said. “We’re really looking forward to playing on our home field.”

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