Softball: No. 18 Northwestern sweeps Nebraska, clinches share of Big Ten regular-season title


Daily file photo by Jorge Melendez

Northwestern players celebrate a victory. The Wildcats started the season strong with a 4-1 record at the Kajikawa Classic.

Jake Epstein, Assistant Sports Editor

On May 6, 2022, Northwestern’s softball program felt excitement for the first time since 2008: the Wildcats were the outright Big Ten regular season champions, finishing with an 18-3 record against their Big Ten opponents.

A year later, No. 18 Northwestern seized a similar feat, sweeping its home series against Nebraska this past weekend to clinch a share of the regular-season conference crown — the first back-to-back title for NU since the 1986-87 seasons.

The Cats (33-10, 18-2 Big Ten) and the Cornhuskers (32-17, 12-8 Big Ten) held each other scoreless in the series’ first two innings Friday, but NU swiftly stormed out in front, netting 11 runs in the third. While Nebraska grabbed two runs at the top of the fourth inning to nimbly trim the lead, the Cats cruised to a second consecutive 11 score inning, securing a 22-2 edge heading into the fifth.

Friday’s contest concluded in a 22-4 run-rule rout for NU after the Cornhuskers tacked on two runs in the top of the fifth inning. Coach Kate Drohan’s team carried heaps of momentum into Saturday’s matchup.

Freshman designated player Kansas Robinson put the Cats on the board early Saturday by scoring on graduate student infielder Nikki Cuchran’s first inning sacrifice fly. But Nebraska quickly punched back with runs in the second and third innings to take a 2-1 lead.

Following junior infielder Hannah Cady’s game-tying run in the bottom of the third inning, the Cornhuskers rattled off four unanswered runs to solidify a 6-2 lead in the sixth. With a four-run deficit heading into the seventh and final inning, NU’s hopes of corralling the coveted conference hardware appeared slim.

But Drohan’s Cardiac Cats came back alive, as Cady tallied the first run of the inning on a wild pitch. Then, sophomore pinch hitter Lauren Sciborski struck gold off a crunch time at bat with a double to left center, scoring graduate student shortstop Maeve Nelson, senior outfielder Angela Zedak and Cuchran to level the score at 6-6.

With the seventh inning closing with a tied score, the teams headed toward extra innings with each holding the other off the board in the eighth frame. Then, in the bottom of the ninth, with freshman outfielder Kelsey Nader on third base, Robinson stepped up to the plate. She left no doubt, hammering a walk-off home run over the right-center wall, capping off an 8-6 victory for the Cats.

NU held control of its own destiny Sunday. With the series win in its back pocket, a decisive sweep would catapult the squad to its second straight regular-season championship. However, this proved easier said than done.

The Cats picked up where they left off on Saturday, opening the battle for Big Ten supremacy with a four-run first inning to take an early 4-2 lead. Following NU’s first frame offensive clinic, the Cornhuskers captured control of the contest’s momentum, scoring seven runs to take a 9-4 edge into the bottom of the fifth inning.

Although the odds seemed stacked against them, once again, the Cardiac Cats came alive right on cue.

In the bottom of the fifth, senior outfielder Kendall Peterson entered the batter’s box with the bases loaded and hit a two-run RBI single, while a throwing error to third base sent Nader home to bring the score within two. Graduate student outfielder Skyler Shellmyer then showcased her veteran, collected presence, smacking an RBI single with two outs to split the deficit.

Shellmyer scored the tying run, and the onus shifted to NU’s first year phenom. Robinson stole home on a wild pitch, diving face-first through the dirt to snatch a 10-9 lead for the Cats — just before the game entered a weather delay.

After resuming play, both teams went scoreless in the sixth inning, meaning the final three outs all came down to graduate student pitcher Danielle Williams. The Cats’ fifth-year ace reverberated confidence as she stepped into the circle.

Williams quickly secured two outs in the frame but soon had Nebraska outfielder Abbie Squier in a 2-0 count with a runner stranded on third. While Squier made solid contact with the third pitch, the ball flew innocently into Cuchran’s glove at the first base line, ending the contest in a 10-9 NU victory and concluding the Cats’ 36-year streak without consecutive conference championships.

NU looks to lock up sole possession of the conference title in this weekend’s series at Rutgers in Piscataway, New Jersey. The Scarlet Knights (31-22, 8-12 Big Ten) carry a two-game losing spell into the weekend, proving a prime opportunity for the Cats to pounce on a downtrodden squad to satiate their championship dreams.

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Twitter: @jakeepste1n

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