Big Ten Preview: Northwestern Looks For More After WCWS Run
Big Ten Preview: Northwestern Looks For More After WCWS Run
Northwestern returns All-American leaders in 2023, while Michigan replaces a legend of the sport. These are the storylines leading the Big Ten in 2023.
2022 was a dream season for Northwestern softball, and the Wildcats may not wake up any time soon.
Coming off a run to the Women's College World Series, Northwestern readies for 2023 as the only Big Ten Conference ranked in the preseason D1Softball.com Top 25. The Wildcats check it at No. 7 behind the returning battery of All-American pitcher Danielle Williams and Softball America's National Defensive Player of the Year, catcher Jordyn Rudd, both of whom were ranked in D1Softball's preseason list of the nation's top 100 players.
Northwestern returns plenty more production from last season's Oklahoma City-bound roster. Outfielder Skyler Shellmyer, first baseman Nikki Cuchran and second baseman Grace Nieto all hit .324 or better in 2022, joining Rudd to give the Wildcats some of the most proven pop of any lineup in the country.
Williams, meanwhile, is coming off winning a staggering 31 decisions with 26 complete games in her 251 innings pitched, amassing a 2.09 ERA with 333 strikeouts and opponent batting average of .195. She was a workhorse in the circle, leading the Wildcats to the WCWS.
A very telling stat:— Bradley Locker (@Bradley_Locker) May 30, 2022
Northwestern is the only team in the Women's College World Series to start one (1) pitcher in all of its postseason games.
Danielle Williams has been a one-woman wrecking crew, throwing 681 (!) pitches in six starts.
A new level of stamina and dominance. pic.twitter.com/dkBtDhse3Q
While Northwestern embarks on the new season the clear team to beat in the Big Ten, the conference has plenty of intriguing storylines — and potential contenders to the Wildcats for a league championship.
Michigan Moves On Without A Legend
Michigan reached the NCAA Tournament a season ago, making it a remarkable 29 for coach Carol Hutchins' standard-setting career. The game's all-time winningest coach announced her retirement in the summer, turning the reins of the Maize-and-Blue over to Bonnie Tholl.
Tholl worked at Hutchins' right hand for three decades, so the transition should be smooth in the dugout. On the field, Michigan returns Audrey LeClair from an All-Big Ten campaign and standout freshman Ellie Sieler.
The Wolverines lost a strong corps of upperclassmen from the '22 roster, but the 2023 squad gets plenty of opportunities to test itself against quality competition before conference play. Michigan heads to the St. Pete Clearwater Elite Invitational to face UFC, Louisiana, WCWS qualifier Oklahoma State, Mississippi State and Duke. That's after a season-opening trip to THE Spring Games.
Will The Big Ten Come Down to NU vs. NU?
Nebraska's 41 total wins were second-most in last season's Big Ten, and the Cornhuskers finished just a game-and-a-half behind Northwestern atop the standings. Mya Felder returns after batting a team-best .373 with 37 RBI a season ago.
Breakout sophomore sensations Billie Andrews, Sydney Gray and Abbie Squier are now junior leaders of a talented squad that may again prove to be the team in purple-and-white's primary competition for the Big Ten championship. Andrews bombed 20 home runs in '22, while Squier hit a tidy .364. Gray batted .313 and her 11 homers were second-most on the team.
Perhaps of no coincidence, Nebraska and Northwestern meet the final weekend of April for the penultimate series of the regular season. Nebraska has plenty to prove before then, of course, starting with the Clearwater Invitational and matchups against Oklahoma State, UCLA, Virginia Tech, Texas A&M and Arkansas.
Minnesota and Wisconsin Are Dangerous Dark Horses
Both Minnesota and Wisconsin scored late-season results that solidified their spots in the NCAA Tournament — and in the Golden Gophers' case, was likely the difference between making the field and not. In both cases, their victories foreshadowed the potential each brings into 2023.
Minnesota beat Big Ten champion Northwestern 2-1 in a May series, both times by 8-0 scores. Natalie DenHartog's combination of contact at the plate and speed on the base paths can cause headaches for any opponent, while Kayla Chavez shines as one of the Big Ten's premier defensive players.
Wisconsin, meanwhile, ended Minnesota's Big Ten Tournament stay early with a 2-0 win. The blanking of a talented Golden Gophers offense pulled the Badgers out of a late-season funk, while also showcasing the dominant side pitcher Maddie Schwartz can unleash.
Schwartz struck out 130 a season ago and finished with a 2.50 ERA in 41 appearances. She's poised to again be one of the top pitchers in the Big Ten — and possibly the country. She struck out eight during her NCAA Tournament appearances, including in Badgers wins over Canisius and Georgia Tech.
Illinois Built for Contention
Illinois' 34-win and third-place finish in conference of the 2022 campaign ended with NCAA Regionals disappointment. However, the Fighting Illini reload with most of its roster in tact. First Team All-Big Ten honoree Avrey Steiner headlines the group of veteran standouts up and down the lineup, along with 2nd Team All-Big Ten selections Kailee Powell at first base and pitcher Sydney Sickels.
Outfielder Danielle Davis added a reliable presence at the dish with a .311 batting average and team-best among starters .422 on-base percentage. Davis, Powell, Steiner and Megan Ward all hit .309 or better, with Steiner's .391 average among the best in the conference.
A bevy of first-year playmakers contributed to last year's breakthrough, with each of Paige Berkmeyer, Lauren Wiles and Stevie Meade earning All-Freshman accolades.
Keep An Eye on Bassett and Sand
All-American watch is on for Indiana's Cora Bassett and Rutgers' Kyleigh Sand. Bassett came to Indiana from in-state rival Purdue and immediately proved herself the best hitter in the Hoosiers lineup.
Bassett combines power at the plate and speed on the base paths, which translated to a program record 19 doubles. She also swiped 16 bases, making good use of her ability to get on board with a hefty .400 batting average. Few in the Big Ten approached Bassett's consistency at the dish; Sand was among those who did.
Sand hit .398 in her stellar sophomore campaign, drew 33 walks and proved dangerous when aboard with 23 steals. She's just as fast chasing down a single, too.
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