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’s South Side freshman Isabel Cunnea makes waves on the North Shore

Daily file photo by Henry Frieman
Freshman utility player Isabel Cunnea high-fives teammates before a game.

Boasting an undefeated conference record and a 10-game home win streak, a hot Michigan squad entered Evanston for a highly anticipated early-April series against Northwestern. 

With Lauren Derkowski — one of the Big Ten’s top pitchers — leading the charge for the Wolverines, the Wildcats’ then 30-game unbeaten run at home seemed to be in jeopardy. 

While NU enjoyed its fair share of early success, much of its offensive production came from the top of the lineup. Nearly half of the team’s hits had come from its top three batters: Sophomore infielder Kansas Robinson, sophomore outfielder Kelsey Nader and graduate student outfielder Angela Zedak. 

To defend their perfect streak at the “J”, the ’Cats needed widespread plate contributions, even their freshman-heavy bottom third of the lineup.

Before the Michigan series, freshman outfielder Isabel Cunnea batted a meager .185 on the year with five RBIs. A week later, she earned co-Big Ten Freshman of the Week after collecting at least one extra-base hit in four consecutive games against Michigan and Illinois.


An alumna of Chicago’s Marist High School — the reigning 4A softball state champions — the Oak Lawn native is well accustomed to delivering standout performances in critical moments. 

As Marist’s softball coach for the past decade, Colleen Biebel bore witness to Cunnea’s exceptional ability as a clutch hitter. 

“When we needed a hit or a run, we could always count on her,” Biebel said. “She never let the pressure get to her.”

While Cunnea’s career with the RedHawks wrote legendary chapters, her story with Biebel commenced long before she donned Marist’s red and white uniform.

After receiving her first softball glove on her fourth birthday, Cunnea honed her skills throughout elementary school. At the age of 9, she took her game to the next level, joining the Beverly Bandits — an organization renowned for cultivating some of the nation’s top recruits.

Serving on the coaching staff of Cunnea’s first Bandits team, Biebel said she immediately  recognized the outfielder as “the type of kid you love to coach.” 

Although Biebel coached Cunnea at the club level for just one year, their relationship continued to develop as the young prospect began attending annual Marist summer camps until she officially enrolled at the school in 2019.

Missing her freshman season due to the pandemic, Cunnea quickly established herself as a key player in Marist’s starting lineup as a sophomore, often occupying the seventh spot to provide a boost to the team’s bottom order.

As a member of Marist’s 2021 state championship team, she learned how to lead a team to success at a high level from her predominately upperclassmen teammates. Soon, she’d fill lofty leadership shoes, earning the team captain role as a junior.

According to Biebel, Cunnea’s leadership appointment reflected an understanding of the team’s winning culture, as she actively worked to establish it. 

While many recognize her for breaking the school’s home run record — which her future teammate Zedak set four years prior — Cunnea’s lighthearted energy when dancing in the outfield and joking around with her teammates stood out to Biebel.

In high school, Cunnea opted to have “Karma Chameleon” by Culture Club and “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears for Fears as her walk up songs. 

“I always like to keep things upbeat and these are just songs that make me happy,” Cunnea said. 


Transitioning into a new chapter of her life with the start of her collegiate career, the freshman opted to change her walk-up music to “Dancing Queen” by ABBA. The iconic song now plays over the speakers of the “J” each time she steps into the box, where she greets the moment with a smile.

Much like her early connection with Marist and Biebel, Cunnea’s relationship with coach Kate Drohan’s squad began long before she was formally recruited. Growing up just an hour away from the team’s stomping grounds enabled her to participate in Monday night hitting camps at the University from a young age.

“This is where I’ve wanted to be all these years and now I’m finally here, so it’s just good to know that hard work pays off,” Cunnea said. 

Despite facing early plate struggles, Cunnea has been a powerhouse since the Michigan series, driving in seven runs with two doubles and three homers.

Perhaps one of the most memorable moments in Cunnea’s young career came against the Wolverines, when she hit an electrifying grand slam off Welsh-Ryan Arena’s exterior in the second inning of an 8-5 NU victory.

“It has been a huge adjustment coming into college, and it’s been unlike anything I’ve ever faced before,” Cunnea said. “So it’s been nice to settle in and feel like myself these past few weeks.” 

After recording only one hit in last weekend’s series against Maryland, Cunnea discussed the challenges of staying focused on winning teams. During her three seasons at Marist, her team went a whopping 107-9 in her 116 games played. 

Amid the ’Cats’ home win streak that spans more than two calendar years, Cunnea draws many parallels between the winning tradition of her high school team and the culture she has meshed into in Evanston. 

“To me, it’s just about not thinking about the team behind you or the team in front of you and just focusing on the next game and the next at-bat,” Cunnea said. 

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @AudreyPachuta

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