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: No. 23 Northwestern readies for Big Ten Tournament

Daily file photo by Henry Frieman
Junior outfielder Ayana Lindsey loads up for a pitch in NU’s April victory over Michigan. Lindsey leads the team in two-out hits this season.

Just shy of a year ago, a much different Northwestern squad descended upon Champaign as the clear favorite to win the Big Ten Tournament.

On the heels of an undefeated season at home and a regular season conference title, the Wildcats’ senior-laden lineup was poised to make another deep postseason run a year after making the program’s first Women’s College World Series appearance in 15 years.

Adding to its lofty list of accomplishments, coach Kate Drohan’s standout senior class — which featured Danielle Williams, Skyler Shellmyer, Nikki Cuchran, Jordyn Rudd and Maeve Nelson — delivered, collecting its second automatic bid to the NCAA tournament in as many years.

Now, with seven new starters and nine fresh faces on the roster, NU (33-10, 19-3 Big Ten) returns to the fray, aiming to defend its title as Big Ten Tournament victors for the second consecutive year.

In a season where the odds were stacked against them from the outset — losing key players like starting second baseman Grace Nieto and top returning pitcher Lauren Boyd to injury, while also graduating a historic class of five seniors last spring — the ’Cats have surpassed all expectations in an expected rebuilding year. 

With three upperclassmen in its starting lineup, NU has leaned on a promising group of freshmen and sophomores to uphold the team’s legacy, while also drawing on the leadership of veteran players like graduate student outfielder Angela Zedak and senior infielder Hannah Cady to maintain the program’s culture.

Behind standout performances from graduate transfer pitcher Ashley Miller in the circle, the ’Cats have maintained their high level of play from last year, securing the Big Ten regular-season title for the third consecutive season as they head into the conference tournament later this week.

Here are three things to know ahead of the Big Ten Tournament.

1. The road does not relent

Entering its final conference series against Indiana, NU sat atop the Big Ten standings by a half-game over Michigan.

The ’Cats held the reins of their own destiny — a sweep over their opponents would have secured the regular season title. But after dropping the second contest of the weekend against the Hoosiers, all eyes turned toward Ann Arbor.

The Wolverines were riding a 13-game win streak as they prepared to host Ohio State — a team that had been in the middle of the Big Ten pack all year — for their final series of regular season play.

As its offense went stagnant at the worst possible time, Michigan dropped its second game of the weekend early on Sunday, handing NU its third consecutive regular season conference title before it even beat the Hoosiers.

“The Big Ten has been up for grabs all season, and I think it’s going to be a really unique tournament because of it,” Drohan said after the team’s win over Indiana Sunday. 

Conference matchups were unpredictable throughout the regular season with NU’s three losses coming to teams who weren’t strong contenders for the regular season title.

As the tournament’s top seed, the ’Cats are set to play eight-seed Indiana, which defeated Purdue 6-3 in the tournament’s opening round Wednesday.

Unlike some conference tournaments with clear frontrunners, NU faces a challenging road back to the championship, starting with what is poised to be a tough quarterfinal match Thursday.

2. Clutch hitting is NU’s secret weapon

Throughout their Big Ten slate, the ’Cats have thrived under pressure, weaponizing the two-out scenario to their advantage. 

Of the 144 runs NU has tallied against conference opponents, 71 were scored with two outs, showcasing Drohan’s group’s strong reliance on its self-proclaimed “pass the bat mentality.”

Batting ninth in the lineup, junior outfielder Ayana Lindsey’s offensive contributions often go unnoticed. With a .228 batting average and zero home runs on the year, the Iowa City native doesn’t boast standout statistics on the surface.

But when the moment comes — Lindsey rises to the occasion like few others.

Her 10 two-out hits are tied for the highest on NU’s roster with Zedak. Typically a contact hitter, Lindsey has notched four doubles and a triple when the team is down to the frame’s final out — serving as a prime momentum boost as the lineup flips back to sophomore sluggers Kansas Robinson and Kelsey Nader. 

Of the team’s 64 two-out hits against Big Ten teams, nearly half have been for extra bases, including 18 homers. 

In two of the ‘Cats’ three conference losses, they were unable to score any runs with two outs, managing just five two-out hits combined in those games.

As NU prepares for a talented pool of Big Ten opponents this weekend, maintaining its season-long composure under pressure will be vital for success on the postseason stage.

3. It’s Miller Time

After graduating its best pitcher in program history last season, NU found its new ace through the transfer portal in Ashley Miller. 

The former Michigan State pitcher has put up career-best statistics in her lone season in purple digs. 

Boasting a conference-best 1.34 ERA, Miller was named Big Ten Pitcher of the Year Wednesday in addition to her four Big Ten Pitcher of the Week honors — which tie NU’s former-star Danielle Williams in her 2022 All-American season.

In the ’Cats’ most recent series against Indiana, Miller struggled to find the strike zone — walking 18 batters in just 10 innings pitched.

Despite experiencing difficulty in controlling her command, Miller appeared in all three games in the team’s final weekend of the regular season and gave up just three total earned runs.

Starting in the circle for Sunday’s contest, she seemed to regain her composure after Michigan’s loss clinched NU’s Big Ten title. As the stands erupted in celebration, Miller quickly got the final out of the inning and eased into the game with the pressure relieved from her performance.

The ’Cats’ success at the Big Ten Tournament will depend on not only Miller’s ability to bring her best game, but also depth within the rotation from graduate student pitcher Cami Henry and freshman pitcher Renae Cunningham — both of whom have shone with game-winning performances in relief this week. 

Email: [email protected]

X: @AudreyPachuta

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