Northwestern’s softball team is on the cusp of its first Women’s College World Series since 2007. But first, the Wildcats must do something they’ve only accomplished twice in 18 tries in program history: Beat Oklahoma.
This weekend, Northwestern is making its first appearance in the NCAA Super Regionals since 2008 in a best-of-three series against the top-seeded Sooners after dispatching Louisville in a doubleheader last Sunday. The Wildcats lost 3-0 in Game 1 on Friday in Norman, Oklahoma, as they struggled to muster anything at the plate against the Sooners.
The Wildcats believe they’re a better team offensively and defensively because of how they matched up against Oklahoma in two shutout losses earlier this season and are confident in their chances for a comeback.
After a 17-5 start, Northwestern went 25-3 before the Big Ten tournament after an 8-0 loss to the Sooners on March 10.
“We’re a different team than we were when we faced them in March, especially with the youth that we had,” Northwestern associate coach Caryl Drohan said. “Our athletes learned a lot that weekend, and from there, they were much more aggressive with adjustments against top pitchers. The last three weeks helped us out, facing top pitching, and I think our athletes have a great plan.”
The Wildcats regularly start five freshmen who are among the top eight in team batting average.
After a loss to DePaul on March 27, Northwestern coach Kate Drohan noticed a shift in the mindset of her players.
“There was a stretch where we really challenged them to simply get better every day,” she said. “There were some really tough games in our conference, but they love to play, compete and win. So we didn’t have to do a whole lot to motivate them.”
At the helm of the young core is freshman pitcher Danielle Williams.
The native of Pleasanton, California, was a top-three finalist for the National Fastpitch Coaches Association’s Freshman of the Year award.
She went 31-6 with 13 shutouts, 310 strikeouts and a 1.38 ERA, 23rd-best in the nation.
NU assistant coach Michelle Gascoigne led the Sooners to the NCAA title in 2013 with a three-hit shutout. Now she’ll be guiding Williams and the rest of the pitching staff against her alma matter to prevent Oklahoma from reaching its fourth consecutive College World Series.
“In the first couple of innings, you might feel some jitters, and those are good things,” Gascoigne said. “For Danielle, what’s really important is having a great relationship with [freshman catcher Jordyn Rudd] because that’s who she’s looking at in those moments. Jordyn’s done a really job handling that, calming her down, and they call timeout if they need to set the pace of the game.”
Freshman infielder Nikki Cuchran has been hot at the plate recently. She went 7-for-19 in the Wildcats’ five regional games after making adjustments so she could track the ball better.
“Caryl and I had a conversation before the Big Ten tournament, and she said, ‘It’s a whole new season, and nothing that happened previously matters anymore,’ ” Cuchran said. “I took that to heart, and I really tried to let go of my previous at-bats that I kind of held on to.”
NU will need every bit of offense it can get from Cuchran and the rest of the Wildcats against the No. 1 pitching team in the nation to reach the College World Series.