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TEMPE, Ariz. -- After a long winter of anything but hibernation, the Northwestern Wildcats finally escaped their cages and ran wild at the Kajikawa Classic in Arizona.
|Kate Drohan has overhauled Northwestern's softball program.|
Less than 24 hours after taking their first outdoor cuts of the season during a practice scants minutes after touching down in Tempe, Ariz., on Thursday, the Wildcats put up eight runs in five innings against Texas A&M ace Amanda Scarborough. Two days and 38 runs later, they left Arizona with four wins, including two against top-five foes, and the epilogue to a winter's worth of work.
"You know, we hit a lot inside and we don't really know where the ball is going," coach Kate Drohan said of early practices spent hitting in batting cages sheltered from the wintry ambiance of Lake Michigan and Chicago's northern suburbs.
The same could have been said for the precise trajectory of Drohan's program entering the weekend.
Coming off back-to-back Women's College World Series appearances, Northwestern opened the season ranked seventh. But both trips to Oklahoma City included contributions from departed seniors Eileen Canney, Garland Cooper and Katie Logan. Along with players like Courtnay Foster, Kristen Amegin and Jamie Dotson from the previous year's senior class, all were cornerstones in the wildly successful rebuilding process Drohan initiated when she took over in 2002. So as the current Wildcats -- with just five players remaining from the first World Series trip -- traveled to Tempe, the question was whether the second generation would live up to the first or live off its accomplishments.
One weekend in February was never going to provide a definitive answer, but these Wildcats offered a peek at their thesis when they piled up some firsts of their own.
The program's first win in 15 tries against Arizona. Its first undefeated opening weekend. Even the first home run for freshman Michelle Batts in Cooper's old No. 23 jersey.
And possibly the first No. 1 ranking in program history.
An unbeaten start for Alabama notwithstanding, Northwestern has to be in the mix for the top spot after beating No. 1 Arizona and No. 3 Texas A&M, as well as Nebraska and Idaho State, and piling up at least eight runs in four consecutive games.
Offense is nothing new for Northwestern, but this was a new group producing most of the runs. Conference strength of the Big Ten aside -- and nobody played a more challenging nonconference schedule -- the Wildcats matched up with just about any contender in both on-base percentage and slugging percentage in 2007. The catch was an inordinate amount of the run production -- 49 percent of the runs and 41 percent of the RBIs -- seemed to come from the top-of-the-order combination of Cooper, Logan and Tammy Williams.
That might have been on Arizona's mind when the defending champions walked Williams with first base open and one out in the bottom of the third inning of a scoreless game Saturday. To be fair, Arizona won't be the last team to take its chances with someone else after Williams finished the Kajikawa with 11 hits in 15 at-bats, but the strategy fell apart when Nicole Pauly, Batts, Jessica Rigas and Erin Dyer followed with three consecutive hits and a sacrifice fly off Taryne Mowatt to build a 3-0 lead.
All told, six players drove in multiple runs for Northwestern over the weekend and all six hit at least one home run. The lineup, which included 20 of 36 possible starts handed to freshmen and sophomores, also produced six stolen bases and 19 walks.
"Hitting is fun; offense is fun," Drohan said. "And there are a lot of subtleties that go along with having a good, complete offense. It's nice to see how our players -- right now they're just complementing each other well with those strengths. We're an aggressive hitting team and we get after it."
|Tammy Williams isn't the only fearsome hitter in Northwestern's lineup.|
Part of the success stemmed from plugging Batts in as the cleanup hitter. The Chicago native drove in a team-best eight runs in the tournament and her ability to climb the ladder against Scarborough and drive a pitch at shoulder level over the fence was mesmerizing. But part of it also stemmed from overlooked options like Rigas and senior Darcy Sengewald, whose batting averages masked the significant offensive contributions revealed in their on-base and slugging percentages.
Making Northwestern's success all the more remarkable was that the wins came despite an off weekend for ace Lauren Delaney. The sophomore walked 60 batters in 154 innings last season, but struggled to find the zone in Tempe and walked 21 in just 21 innings. She also struck out 32 and allowed just 18 hits, and it doesn't take a Northwestern education to understand that it's easier to harness power than to create it out of thin air.
"I just need her to stay aggressive," pitching coach Tori Nyberg explained. "She's a great pitcher with a ton of potential. … I'm just really pleased with the progress that she's made [since last season]. And it's just kind of settling in now with batters in the box and playing games, because she hasn't done that in awhile."
And it doesn't hurt to have some margin for error.
"It's amazing," Nyberg said. "To be able to go into the seventh inning against Arizona and know that you can give up four runs and still win -- you can't value that enough. What our hitters have done the first few games is phenomenal."
Undoubtedly the most vocal Wildcats supporter on hand over the weekend was Cooper, the two-time Big Ten Player of the Year and a native of nearby Southern California. Even as she admitted that watching from the stands made her far more nervous than she ever had been in the field or at the plate, she put her time in perspective.
"I really felt like a part of the growth process for Northwestern," Cooper said. "When I came in, they were just starting to be nationally recognized in the top 30 and every year we got a little bit better. And on my recruiting visit, that's what Kate said we would do and I believed in it."
And even if the room for improvement has shrunk from leaps and bounds to inches and fractions, that was still the philosophy on display for a mostly new group of Wildcats during a wildly successful weekend in the desert.
"When we first come in to Northwestern, one thing that Kate really pushes on us is that feeling of ownership," Cooper said. "We have ownership of that team."
It appears to be in good hands.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.