Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Softball: Northwestern eyes return to Big Ten title game, NCAA Tournament

Daily file photo by Seeger Gray
Northwestern gears up for its heavily slated upcoming season with its eyes set on another NCAA tournament berth.

With a successful opening weekend under its belt, Northwestern is looking to make a return trip to Oklahoma City for the Women’s College World Series this year after narrowly missing the opportunity in 2023.

The Wildcats opened their season with a 4-1 record at the Kajikawa Classic, riding the momentum of a third 40-plus win season in the last five years during their last campaign. 

Coach Kate Drohan returns just four members of last year’s starting lineup, and will hand much of the team’s responsibilities over to a talented freshman class looking to build on the momentum established by their predecessors. 

Here are five things to watch as NU’s season gets underway:

1. The start of a new dynasty?

The last time a freshman class started this strong, they propelled the ‘Cats to their first Big Ten championship in 15 years, three super regional appearances and a WCWS berth. 

That 2019 freshman class included star-studded starters like Danielle Williams, Jordyn Rudd and Skyler Shellmyer — all of whom graduated last spring. 

Now, in its first season without that historic group, NU’s new softball freshman cohort has embraced the challenge of carrying on their legacy seamlessly.

Freshman pitchers Renae Cunningham and Riley Grudzielanek both got their first career starts during the ‘Cats opening weekend in Arizona. Both secured complete game victories, surrendering just one run each over a combined 12.1 innings on the mound. 

Grudzielanek also left her mark on the plate, tallying three hits –– including a double and a homerun. 

All eight freshmen made appearances in NU’s opening weekend, tallying a combined 10 hits.

2. Veteran sluggers will set the tone

While the extensive freshman talent pool promises an exciting future for the program, the contributions of senior infielder Hannah Cady and graduate student outfielder Angela Zedak will continue to be pivotal to the team’s success this season.

The veteran duo went 17-of-29 at the plate this past weekend, collecting six extra base hits and 12 RBIs. 

Both Zedak and Cady have been mainstays in the starting lineup for the past two seasons, remaining at the forefront of the success that led the squad to two consecutive Big Ten championships. 

Cady is the sole returning player that earned All-Big Ten honors last season, while Zedak holds the highest batting average among returning players from last year’s squad. 

3. Tough non-conference stretch will provide early tests

The ‘Cats will encounter seven opponents ranked in preseason polls during their non-conference stretch over the next five weeks, presenting one of the most formidable schedules in the nation. 

They are set to confront No. 3 Texas, No. 8 Oklahoma State and No. 12 LSU at the Shriners Children’s Clearwater Invitational next weekend.

They will also take on No. 20 UCLA, No. 21 South Carolina and No. 24 Auburn twice before transitioning to Big Ten play.

Early season tests will help the ‘Cats gear up for the caliber of competition they can expect to face in the postseason as they aim for another NCAA tournament run — and a potential return to the WCWS. 

4. Will Ashley Miller be NU’s next ace?

After Williams’s five-year reign of excellence in the circle, the ‘Cats faced the challenge of assembling a new winning pitching rotation for this year. 

And, with graduate student transfer Ashley Miller’s standout performance during opening weekend, they may have unlocked a key aspect of elite-caliber pitching.

The Indiana native transferred from Michigan State in June after leading her team in strikeouts last season. 

During a three-year stint with the Spartans, Miller tallied 472 strikeouts across 420.1 innings pitched, securing her the third position on the Spartans’ all-time strikeouts leaderboard. 

Despite a challenging 2023 campaign, where she posted a career-high 5.43 ERA, Miller has proven her ability to be a dominant force, especially against Big Ten opponents. 

In a standout sophomore year, Miller was one of the conference’s top pitchers, conceding only 50 earned runs in 193.1 innings pitched. She also accumulated 244 strikeouts that season, placing her fifth in the conference and 20th in the nation. 

Miller pitched lights out in her NU debut. She recorded 16 strikeouts across nine innings of play and threw a complete-game shutout in her first start against Arizona State. 

Without surrendering a single run or walk in her first appearances donning purple, Miller emerges as a potential new star pitcher the ‘Cats have been searching for. 

5. NU to face much stronger Big Ten competition this year

For the past eight months, many NU fans have anticipated Nebraska’s dominance in the Big Ten behind junior pitcher Jordy Bahl, who returned to her home state after departing the perennial powerhouse Oklahoma Sooners at the end of last season. 

The two-time All-American ended her career at Oklahoma with a 44-2 record and an absurd 1.00 ERA. She recorded the final out in last year’s world series championship game, extending the team’s win streak to an unprecedented 53 games. 

Following Bahl’s season-ending ACL tear during opening weekend, the competitive landscape in the Big Ten has been blown back open, but the ‘Cats should still expect to face significant trials from both Nebraska and Indiana. 

Without Bahl, the Cornhuskers still maintain a threatening offense behind Brooke and Billie Andrews, Nebraska’s sibling duo, both of whom boasted batting averages over .300 last season. 

Nebraska also sees the return of sophomore infielder Katelyn Caneda, who earned First Team All-Big Ten, Big Ten Freshman and Big Ten Defensive honors in her inaugural season last year. 

NU will travel to Lincoln to face the Cornhuskers in their penultimate season series. 

The road will not relent for NU after facing Nebraska as they turn to face Indiana in their final three games before postseason competition commences. 

Coach Drohan’s squad narrowly edged out the Hoosiers in the Big Ten championship last year. Now, with eight of nine starters from last year’s team returning, Indiana is seeking revenge. 

To fare well in conference play, NU must win its games against less formidable opponents early on in the Big Ten gauntlet, for the latter part of their season promises much tougher matchups. 

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @AudreyPachuta

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