Team Profile: Northwestern Wildcats

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A look back at 2019
During the 2019 season, Northwestern finished the year with a 47-13 overall record, recording a 21-2 showing in Big Ten conference play. The Wildcats ended the year with a 17-2 home record, sporting a 12-8 mark in road games.

Opening weekend of the ’19 campaign saw the Wildcats swiftly record their first loss of the year, a defeat at the hands of Loyola Marymount in California. A trio of wins over Louisville and a run-rule defeat of Utah highlighted the early season portion of the schedule, while the Wildcats also lost tight games to Washington and Stanford and were twice shutout against Oklahoma in Norman. A late-season single game against Notre Dame gave the Wildcats another quality victory in non-conference play.

In Big Ten play, the Wildcats started the conference slate 21-0 before dropping back-to-back games against Minnesota to end the regular season. The undefeated run included series sweeps over Rutgers, Iowa, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Purdue, and Michigan State, along with a single-game victory over Indiana and a doubleheader sweep over Illinois. The Wildcats won game one of the series against Minnesota before falling in the final two games of the weekend.

The conference tournament saw the Wildcats post a 1-1 record, eliminated after again losing to Minnesota, this time in the tournament semifinals. Northwestern earned the #16 overall seed in the NCAA tournament, hosting a regional in Evanston for the first time since 2008. After losing in the initial winner’s bracket game of the regional, the Wildcats came storming back in the regional final, winning back-to-back games on Sunday to reach the Super Regionals. The Wildcats were shut out in the Super, falling 3-0 and 8-0 to #1-ranked Oklahoma.

Roster turnover
The Wildcats said goodbye to a pair of starters who graduated after last season, including starting outfielder Morgan Nelson and first baseman Lily Novak. The Wildcats saw zero players from their 2019 active roster enter the transfer portal after the season.

With impressive roster consistency, the Wildcats sport sixteen returners, zero transfers, and added seven freshmen.

Strengths and weaknesses
Strengths – Danielle Williams was positively stellar in the circle as a freshman, and Kenna Wilkey was a quality #2 for the ‘Cats. The pair combined for more than 330 innings between them, contributing heavily to the team’s 1.95 cumulative ERA. The pitching circle is a decided strength for the team in 2020. After a breakout 2019 campaign, the Wildcats’ roster consistency is also a positive for the team’s opportunities for continued contention this season.

Weaknesses – The Wildcats benefited from Williams’ quality freshman campaign, as well as from a softball world that had just begun to sleep on the potency of the Wildcats’ roster. Always a contender, the Wildcats had not hosted a regional in more than a decade before being selected as a top-16 seed last year. The Big Ten could be down this year, which could both help and hurt the Cats. Avoiding a sophomore slump for Williams, as well as catcher Jordyn Rudd, is imperative.

2020 outlook
Pitching – 
Williams looked really solid last season, and was easily the biggest catalyst to the Wildcats’ return to national prominence. She finished the year with a 1.55 ERA and 317 strikeouts, and shouldered the load in the circle in the regional final against Louisville. Behind her, the Wildcats also return all three pitchers who saw time in the circle a year ago.

Offense – Rudd, who started every game behind the plate for the Wildcats in her freshman year, led the team in batting average (.328), hits (57), and RBIs (51). She proved to be a steady and powerful bat in the lineup, and leads a hearty pack of returners at the plate for the Cats. Northwestern returns five of their top seven hitters from a season ago, as well as team home run leader Rachel Lewis.

Coaching – 2019 brought a reminder of just how good of a coach Kate Drohan is. The longtime leader of the Wildcats’ program, Drohan has spent nearly two decades at the helm in Evanston and owns more than 600 career wins as a Wildcat. Kate Drohan’s sister, Caryl, continues to serve as the program’s associate head coach, while Oklahoma alum Michelle Gascoigne has turned into one of the nation’s top pitching coaches, and is now in her fifth season in purple.

Wrap-up
Few expected the Wildcats to have the kind of 2019 as they did, but as the season went on, the better the team proved their staying power. Danielle Williams proved to be a bonafide star in the circle, and now looks to build on that in collegiate season #2. The Wildcats’ offense flew somewhat below the radar, in large part thanks to the team’s pitching heroics, but Jordyn Rudd and Maeve Nelson both turned in high-quality freshman campaigns at the plate in their own right. With a low roster turnover, high volume of returners, and a schedule that will see them take on a tough non-conference schedule, but host both Michigan and Minnesota, the recipe is there for the Wildcats to build on last season’s successes.

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