Softball: Former players reflect on Northwestern’s winning legacy ahead of NCAA tournament

Coach Kate Drohan and former coach Sharon J. Drysdale talk after Northwestern secured its third-consecutive Big Ten regular season title.
Coach Kate Drohan and former coach Sharon J. Drysdale talk after Northwestern secured its third-consecutive Big Ten regular season title.
Henry Frieman/The Daily Northwestern

Drawing from Seth Godin’s “Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable,” coach Kate Drohan fashioned a new motto for what she deemed a special 2006 team.

With three NCAA tournament berths in her first four years as Northwestern’s head coach, she was convinced that with the right rallying cry, this team had the potential to propel the program to unprecedented success.

“The whole idea is: How can you separate yourself from everyone else? How can you do something a little differently?” Drohan said. “And the word Godin used was ‘remarkable.’”

The team’s mantra, “be remarkable,” was rooted in the idea that while spotting a regular cow in a field may not be noteworthy, seeing a purple cow would garner attention.

Drohan felt the message embodied the Wildcats’ values as a comparatively smaller private school competing against giants like Michigan and Ohio State in the Big Ten.

“We have a heavy focus on academics. We play a very physical, very explosive brand of softball,” Drohan said. “So there are certain things about our program that I think continue to set us apart, and that’s become part of our identity.”

Intended as a short-term inspiration source, the theme transcended into a permanent fixture, symbolizing the program’s legacy and continuity for the current roster and incoming prospects.

Boasting 22 NCAA tournament appearances and six Women’s College World Series runs, NU has crafted a tradition of remarkability since the program’s inception in 1976.

As the 2024 team prepares for a Friday postseason regional matchup against Saint Francis (Penn.) in Austin, Texas, three eras of softball dominance shine through whenever Drohan’s group takes the field.

Building a program (1984-1987)

After the ’Cats’ first coach Mary Conway served at the helm for three seasons, leadership shifted to coach Sharon Drysdale in 1979.

In an age of softball predating Oklahoma’s perennial powerhouse status and the SEC’s softball stronghold, Drysdale focused her recruiting efforts on the West Coast — then, the sport’s epicenter.

Drysdale struck gold in California, where she found Lisa Sliwa, formerly Lisa Ishikawa — a pitcher who would put NU on the map. 

Just two years after Big Ten softball’s inception, Drysdale’s program stood in its infancy. Despite clinching the inaugural conference championship title in 1982, the ’Cats had yet to make their mark on the national scene.

Sliwa piqued Drysdale’s interest while playing summer ball in her hometown of Stockton, California. As a freshman in 1984, she wasn’t anticipated to receive much playing time, as NU’s primary pitcher Cathy Tawse shouldered significant responsibilities in the circle.

However, when Tawse tore her rotator cuff while sliding into second base during the team’s spring break trip that March, the freshman took the mound in almost every game until season’s end.

Maintaining a program-record 0.46 ERA that season and finishing with a 33-7 record, she led the ’Cats to the NCAA championship in Omaha, Nebraska — where the contest was held until 1987.

“It was not something that I was expecting,” Sliwa said. “I came to Northwestern to get a good education, and I was just playing softball to pay for school, so I wasn’t really looking for that much exposure.”

Lisa Sliwa, formerly Lisa Ishikawa, pitches the ball. (Photo courtesy of Lisa Sliwa)

She pitched five no-hitters, including the Big Ten’s first-ever perfect game against Michigan State. Her performance resonated with future-teammate Ndidi Massay, formerly Ndidi Opia, who soon became the other half of the battery.

Two years younger than Sliwa, Massay played against her future teammate in summer leagues and high school competition before they’d eventually don the same colors at NU.

“I really didn’t know many schools outside of the West Coast, but I knew Lisa had gone to Northwestern and then they were in the World Series,” Massay said. “I just knew that’s what I wanted to do too.”

Though Massay was not formally recruited until her senior year of high school, she said she heard Drysdale was impressed by her performance in a game she played against Sliwa a few years prior.

During Massay’s debut season in Evanston, the ’Cats clinched a World Series spot for the third consecutive year. While it marked the sole instance during Massay’s four-year tenure that the team reached such heights, she said she will never forget the excitement of playing softball at the highest level.

Massay said that despite the comparatively limited fanfare and media attention surrounding the sport at the time, it was “still amazing to be around some of the elite softball players in the country.” 

In Omaha, Massay said she formed relationships with players who eventually became her teammates in summer leagues and people with whom she crossed paths later in her career as a sports journalist.

Ndidi Massay, formerly Ndidi Opia, gathers the ball. (Photo courtesy of Ndidi Massay)

Massay capped off her career as NU’s leader in hits and stolen bases, boasting a .299 career-batting average in a pitcher-dominated era, where ERAs often dipped below 1.00.

The former catcher said she appreciates the game’s evolution, noting its shift toward a more hitter-friendly and team-oriented approach as the mound moved back three feet and bats shifted from aluminum to composite.

“I think the big thing about the team now is that it’s much more of a group effort and not just one or two superstars,” Massay said. “When I played we had Lisa Ishikawa on the mound — and we won four Big Ten Championships because of that.”

Passing the torch (2004-2008)

After a string of four consecutive NCAA tournament appearances in the mid-eighties, Drysdale’s program fell into limbo for nearly 13 years until a national postseason return in 2000 — just before Drohan took the reins as head coach the following year.

Upon inheriting a dormant program, Drohan began curating a team that would one day compete at the highest level.

As it did with Drysdale decades earlier, the recruiting trail took Drohan to California, where she targeted infielder Garland Cooper.

Cooper said Drohan told her when she committed to NU she would be joining a team that would compete for a national championship.

“At the time, Northwestern hadn’t even scratched the surface of becoming a top-25 program, but for some reason, when she said that, I believed her,” Cooper said.

Three years later, Drohan delivered on her promise.

After fielding offers from top-tier programs like Michigan, Alabama and Ohio State, Cooper joined the ’Cats on the field in the spring of 2004.

Infielder Garland Cooper hits the ball. (Photo courtesy of Garland Cooper)

Cooper drew inspiration from senior leaders like Carri Martin, formerly Carri Leto, attributing her development as a leader to the guidance she received from the team’s veterans.

Throughout Cooper’s four-year tenure, the team secured NCAA tournament berths each season, but its 2006 trip to the World Series championship series proved the most memorable.

“They called us a Cinderella team the whole time, so we were underdogs coming in with a chip on our shoulder,” Cooper said. “Nobody thought we were supposed to be there, so it just made it more fun when we were beating everyone on the field.”

Failing to score in two games against Arizona, the ‘Cats’ hopes were dashed in the finals. However, this season stands as the furthest the program has advanced under Drohan.

By her career’s culmination, Cooper had shattered the batting records of legends who came before her, including school records in batting average (.387), home runs (55), hits (265) and RBIs (207).

“Ndidi has always been a mentor for me over the years. I think one thing about this program is that we try to honor the past,” Cooper said.

She said her team was consistently mindful of the preceding generation of NU players which achieved greatness and performed at a high standard, viewing it as an honor to draw inspiration from them and surpass some of their highmarks.

Maintaining a legacy (2019-present)

The 2006 team ushered in an age of consistent success that turned the ’Cats into perennial postseason contenders.

After securing nine tournament bids between 2006 and 2018, NU’s most recent era of diamond excellence began with the 2018 recruiting class’ rise to prominence.

Behind two-time All-American pitcher Danielle Williams in the circle, Drohan’s group secured three super regional appearances, showcasing a historic class of talent that penned a five-season story.

Center fielder Skyler Shellmyer, first baseman Nikki Cuchran, catcher Jordyn Rudd, shortstop Maeve Nelson and Williams made deep postseason runs no longer a surprise, but an expectation.

With a roster boasting deep talent, the group embraced a “pass-the-bat” mentality, ensuring every player did their part to contribute to the team’s success.

As a member of the pitching rotation and a consistent hitter, Sydney Supple’s playing time fluctuated throughout her career at NU.

As the class of 2019’s No. 10 ranked recruit, Supple showcased a versatile skill set, concluding her tenure with a 4.77 ERA and a .245 batting average.

While her career didn’t garner individual honors on the conference or national level, Supple made her mark as a crucial member of a group that secured four conference titles and consistently made postseason strides.

“Whether you’re on the mound that inning or you’re the person in the dugout that is the absolute glue of the team, everyone plays a role,” Supple said.

Utility player Sydney Supple celebrates a win. (Photo courtesy of Sydney Supple)

The utility player often spent hours with Drohan outside of practice studying film to stay ready when called upon to bat or pitch.

Following her graduation last spring, Supple pivoted to a career in sports broadcasting, frequently covering her former team for Softball America.

While Supple said she loves being closely connected to a program to which she dedicated countless hours, she admits that it has been strange watching her former teammates and coaches compete from the sidelines.

“I don’t know how it’s already been a year since my Senior Day,” Supple said. “But I just feel so proud of the way this team continues to write their own story but also carry on the legacy of Northwestern softball.”

Seeking new horizons

During its final 2024 regular season series against Indiana, NU celebrated both Senior Day and alumni weekend, commemorating nearly 50 years of storied success as this year’s squad prepared for its postseason run.

Among the fans was Drysdale, who threw the first pitch in Friday’s series opener at the stadium named after her.

Despite retiring more than two decades ago, Drysdale remains a key source of inspiration for the team. After securing their third consecutive Big Ten regular season title, players rushed over to celebrate her birthday.

The legendary coach commended her successor, noting Drohan’s impressive feat of surpassing her all-time win total and maintaining the tradition of excellence in NU softball.

She said it was a pleasure to watch how strongly the players and coaches believed in one another.

“I just hope they continue to play as well as they can because that’s all you can ask for,” Drysdale said. “The competition gets tougher and it takes a lot to pull it off, but they’ve shown they can and I hope they will.”

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