Softball: Breaking down each team in Northwestern’s Regional in Lexington

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Daily file photo by Joshua Hoffman

Northwestern’s infielders celebrate a great defensive play. The Wildcats will be in an NCAA Regional with No. 14 Kentucky, Notre Dame and Miami-Ohio.

Benjamin Rosenberg, Senior Staffer


Softball


For the third time in a row, the sixth in the last seven and the 14th since Kate Drohan took over as head coach in 2002, Northwestern is going to the NCAA Tournament. 

The Wildcats had to sweat it out on Selection Sunday, but they survived the bubble and will go to a Regional in Lexington, Kentucky.

NU (29-15, 29-15 Big Ten) was given the fourth seed within the Regional, a rarity for a Power 5 team and a suggestion that the Cats barely made it into the field of 64. They will face host and national No. 14 seed Kentucky in their opening-round game on Friday.

All Regionals are double elimination, a format that helps protect seeded teams, but this is one of the more wide-open Regionals of the tournament. Here’s all you need to know about each of the three teams NU could face in Lexington, as the Cats finally see competition from outside the Big Ten.

No. 14 Kentucky (39-13, 13-11 SEC)

Coach Rachel Lawson’s team got off to a scorching start, winning each of its first 19 games before the start of SEC play, but just three of those were against teams playing in the NCAA Tournament, with only one against a Power 5 opponent.

Once conference play began, it was a bumpier ride for Kentucky. The blue-clad Wildcats — yes, the Regional will see two Wildcats — won two of three against SEC Tournament champion and No. 3 national seed Alabama, but lost series to lower-ranked teams like Georgia and Auburn. Kentucky finished strong, though, sweeping Texas A&M and South Carolina heading into the conference tournament.

The Wildcats’ formula starts and ends with offense. Junior Kayla Kowalik is hitting .505 through 52 games, 78 points higher than anyone else in the SEC. Kowalik is one of four Kentucky hitters with double-digit home runs, led by freshman Erin Coffel with 16. As a team, the Wildcats have a slash line of .329/.405/.554, so Danielle Williams and the rest of NU’s pitching staff are in for quite the challenge.

Fifth-year Autumn Humes is the main name to know with Kentucky’s pitching staff. A two-way player, Humes is responsible for most of the Wildcats’ biggest wins in the circle, but if NU can get to her, Kentucky’s pitching depth is thin.

Notre Dame (31-13, 20-10 ACC)

Talk about coming in hot. Prior to a loss in the ACC Tournament, the Fighting Irish had won 14 in a row, including a road sweep over a ranked Virginia Tech team that solidified their spot in the NCAA Tournament for the 22nd straight time.

Like Kentucky, Notre Dame is an offense-first team. Abby Sweet is one of the best all-around hitters in the country, with a .463 batting average and .556 on-base percentage. Emma Clark and Leea Hanks also have great speed and on-base skills, and Karina Gaskins is the Fighting Irish’s main power threat, with 10 home runs and 35 RBIs.

Notre Dame has a solid pitching tandem in Payton Tidd and Alexis Holloway, who split the innings relatively evenly. Tidd relies on pitching to contact, which has led to the occasional long ball, but she rarely issues walks. Holloway is more of a strikeout pitcher, keeping the ball in the park but sometimes struggling with command.

NU thrives on being selective at the plate, working deep counts and driving opponents’ pitch counts high, so that approach could serve the Cats well against a pitcher like Holloway.

Miami-Ohio (46-8, 36-2 MAC)

Sleep on the RedHawks at your own peril — they’re one of the best mid-major teams in the nation and were rewarded by not having to play the national seed right away. In a USA Today Sports Network panel of writers who were asked to pick the winner of each Regional, four out of eight had Miami making it out of Lexington.

Courtney Vierstra is probably the best pitcher in the Regional. The senior has thrown five no-hitters and is eighth nationally with 261 strikeouts. Opponents hit just .155 against her.

The RedHawks are an offensive juggernaut as well — their .437 team on-base percentage ranks third in the country. Allie Cummins and Karli Spaid are the biggest names, both hitting above .400 with 33 homers and 107 RBIs between them. But nearly every starter is above .300, all capable of hitting the ball out of the park as well.

Miami’s 46 wins are more than any team in the tournament field, and only Oklahoma, Clemson and James Madison have lost fewer games. And the RedHawks are more battle-tested than you might expect for a MAC team — they started the year with Mississippi State, Georgia Tech, Tennessee and Georgia, coming out of that stretch at a solid 3-4.

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