Last year, Northwestern returned to the NCAA Tournament and predictably exited in the second round, bowing at that spot for the second year in a row.
For a Kelly Amonte Hiller-coached team, that qualifies as a disappointment. Since 2005, Amonte Hiller has led the Wildcats to seven NCAA Championships, but in the past two years NU has failed to even make the quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament.
This year, the Cats aren’t quite back to their past glory, but they’re on the right track to bounce back.
Most importantly, NU’s’ leading scorer, junior attacker Selena Lasota, is back. Lasota missed most of last season with an unspecified injury, but is already back on her game, leading the team with 15 goals and six assists.
The Cats opened the season without senior attacker Shelby Fredericks, who set the program-record for draw controls in a season during her junior year. Fredericks missed the first four games of the season, but NU has improved in the circle since her return.
Facing a packed, highly-ranked schedule, the Cats will need that duo, along with breakout redshirt freshman goalie Julie Krupnick and senior attacker Danita Stroup, to continue their impressive run of play.
The team has already lost to No. 1 Stony Brook and taken down No. 14 USC and No. 15 Colorado. NU is set to take on No. 5 Maryland, No. 6 North Carolina and No. 8 Syracuse later this season, as well as other ranked teams Pennsylvania, Notre Dame and Penn State.
Amonte Hiller, however, is not focused on the big picture quite yet, instead taking things one game at a time.
“We need to get back to the details,” Amonte Hiller said. “We need to regroup, and just kind of focus in. It’s really a mentality to be able to hone in small things when the pressure is on.”
Katie Pach/Daily Senior Staffer
Northwestern’s 3-7 start to the 2018 season may be disappointing, but it is not alarming.
This is the toughest early season schedule the Wildcats have faced in years. Just hours after landing in Arizona, NU opened its season with a doubleheader against Nebraska (Omaha). The Cats followed that up by travelling to Kansas and Texas, two Big 12 teams featuring great pitching staffs and early round MLB prospects, in back-to-back-weekends. That’s not an easy schedule for any team.
The pitching staff has struggled against the challenging foes Freshman Quinn Lavelle has been solid, but his fellow three starters — freshman Ryan Bader, sophomore Hank Christie and junior Danny Katz — have been far from consistent. All three have earned run averages above 10 and WHIPs over 2. The staff as a whole has an ERA of 8.46 and a batting average against of .323.
Despite these struggles on the mound, there has been plenty for coach Spencer Allen and the Cats to be happy about so far, especially at the plate. Freshman David Dunn is a sparkplug in center field. Junior first baseman Willie Bourbon has bounced back in a big way after his sophomore slump. Junior shortstop Jack Dunn has twice as many hits as he had at this point last season.
It is too early for any major conclusions to be drawn about the 2018 campaign. At this point last season, NU was 2-8 with its only wins coming against a Santa Clara team that won 13 games and only four outside of the West Coast Conference. It took the Cats until April last season to get into a rhythm, and they finished the last two months of the year with a record well above .500.
If the pitching staff can find its groove and the NU bats remain consistent throughout the season, the Cats have the potential to be good. If NU hits its stride around mid-April again, the Cats would be in a good position to secure one of the eight spots in the Big Ten Tournament. And, as last season’s run to the tournament title game showed, once a team is in, anything can happen.
Katie Pach/Daily Senior Staffer
Last season, Northwestern got off to a 1-10 start and never fully recovered, finishing just short of the .500 requirement necessary to qualify for the NCAA Tournament.
This year, the Wildcats are off to a much better start despite playing a difficult nonconference schedule again. NU (10-8) was lacking a signature win until Sunday, when the Cats took down No. 11 Alabama 4-0 behind a complete-game, three-hit shutout from sophomore pitcher Morgan Newport.
NU’s pitching has been solid this year, and having a deep staff has certainly helped. The Cats carry five pitchers on their roster, though they have been limited the last few weeks with junior Kaley Winegarner sidelined by an injury.
Newport and freshman Kenna Wilkey, however, have stepped in nicely. Wilkey threw a two-hitter in a 3-1 over North Carolina State on Feb. 17, and a complete-game shutout in a 6-0 win against Portland State this past Friday.
“I don’t worry at all about the durability of our pitchers or how they’re feeling right now,” coach Kate Drohan said. “I think they feel fresh, they did a great job of picking each other up.”
Offensively, NU has been inconsistent, but the team has come up with timely hits when they need them more often than not. Drohan has stressed situational hitting in practice, and the Cats have responded well lately. Senior center fielder Sabrina Rabin, Newport and freshman second baseman Rachel Lewis all had key hits in NU’s recent wins in Seattle.
NU has two more weeks of nonconference action before Big Ten play begins March 23. In the conference season, the Cats will face No. 21 Minnesota and No. 19 Ohio State, as well as other tough teams in Nebraska, Illinois and Wisconsin. With the team’s strength of schedule, a .500 record should be enough to secure a spot in the NCAA regionals. Drohan is confident NU can do enough offensively to make that happen.
“It’s about being aggressive with the pitch they want to attack,” Drohan said. “Not trying to be too fine or too perfect or anything like that, but trusting in their ability.”
Allie Goulding/Daily Senior Staffer
Northwestern had high expectations coming into the season, and early on it looked like they might falter. Three-straight losses to UCLA, Texas and Oregon left the Wildcats looking for answers.
It appears that they found them.
NU has ripped off five straight victories, including wins over No. 22 Washington, No. 7 Vanderbilt and No. 5 Illinois, the last coming one on the road in Champaign.
The Cats boast a stellar doubles lineup, featuring the No. 2 and No. 13 doubles teams in the country in seniors Erin Larner and Maddie Lipp and senior Alex Chatt and junior Lee Or, respectively.
In addition to the upperclassmen, the team boasts freshman Inci Ogut in its singles lineup. Ogut stepped up in a potential season-changing moment to take down the Huskies earlier this season.
Recently, the doubles squads have faltered, by the team has picked up its singles play recently, reeling off crucial victories to claim the Vanderbilt and Illinois matches.
Much of the remaining schedule features conference foes, but NU has already taken down the highest-ranked Big Ten team on its own courts in the Fighting Illini. Only two other teams in the conference are ranked in the top 25 (No. 11 Ohio State and No. 25 Michigan) and the Cats will be tested on the road in those matches as well.
To make up for the lack of ranked teams in the conference, the team scheduled an intense nonconference schedule that featured five ranked teams in its first nine games.
In 2014, NU won its 16th straight Big Ten women’s tennis title. Since then, however, the Cats have faltered in the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament in three straight seasons, leaving Larner and Chatt without a title despite years of quality play up-and-down the lineup.
This year’s senior-laden squad may be able to cruise through much of the regular season from this point forward, but with quality performances in the regular season come postseason expectations, and NU will be looking to meet those hopes.
Brian Meng/The Daily Northwestern
Northwestern has experienced its fair share of frustration through the first half of its season, but has also flashed potential during its challenging non-conference schedule.
The Wildcats are a disappointing 4-8, but three of those loses were by a score of 4-3 and easily could have been wins.
All eight loses have come against teams currently ranked in the top 35, and Big Ten play will offer more chances at teams with similar rankings to the Cats and will likely yield more close matches. Still, NU has only defeated one squad from a major conference so far.
The Cats will have plenty of opportunity to defeat such foes in Big Ten play. Only three of NU’s 12 remaining major conference foes are ranked in the top 25. One of those other nine, Michigan State, has not won a Big Ten regular season match in two seasons.
While it will have opportunities, the roster does not feature any seniors, and the team is still dealing with the loss of its top three players from a season ago. Their departures have forced the talented incoming freshman class to take on major roles and two of them, Antonioni Fasano and Nick Brookes, have typically played in two of the top three singles spots.
The turnover has had other effects, as coach Arvid Swan mixed up the doubles pairings five matches into the season. The singles lineup has also featured some churn, as freshman A.J. Joshi and sophomore Chris Ephron compete for the final spot in the singles lineup.
With a younger and less talented team, NU does not face high expectations heading into Big Ten play. The Cats will need to go on an unlikely run if they want to qualify for the program’s seventh consecutive NCAA Tournament as a team.
However, the long term is more important with such a young team at this point in the season. Conference play will offer a number of opportunities for the Cats to get more experience in tight matches that could be valuable against even better teams next season, when everyone returns with a extra year of practice and experience.
David Lee/The Daily Northwestern
It will be hard for Northwestern to top last season’s success. The Wildcats finished as national runner-ups in 2017, not falling until the final round of match play against Arizona State.
Most of last year’s title chasing team returns this year. It’s an upperclassmen-heavy squad: Hannah Kim and Sarah Cho are now the seniors leading the way, with juniors Stephanie Lau and Janet Mao joining them with NCAA Championship experience.
“Everybody’s got some different things that they’re trying to get better at and areas where we can improve,” coach Emily Fletcher said. “There’s been a lot of short game and wedge work and just trying to tidy things up.”
The only departing senior from last season’s team was Kacie Komoto. Sophomore Brooke Riley has filled her spot in the lineup for much of the season. Riley has struggled at times, but recently posted her best finish of the season in a stacked field at the Darius Rucker Invitational.
Predictably, the most reliable golfer for the Cats has been Kim. The two-time Big Ten Player of the Year has finished in the top 25 of every tournament so far this season, including a third place finish at the Stanford Intercollegiate and a fourth at the Dick McGuire Invitational.
The rest of the starting lineup has all turned in multiple top-15 finishes this season, so the talent level is clearly still there for a repeat performance. The team has been scheduling tough competitions all season in preparation for the national competitions at the end of the year.
Throughout Kim and Cho’s time on the team, NU has consistently improved its NCAA Championship result step-by-step. Their freshman year, the Cats finished four strokes out of the match play round before coming up only a single stroke short the next year. Last season, NU fell 3-1-1 to the Sun Devils in the match play final. Now, there’s only one way the Cats can continue their upward trend — win Northwestern’s ninth NCAA Championship in any sport.
Ben Pope/Daily Senior Staffer
After a short winter season, Northwestern heads into the spring ready to take on more challenging competitions with national championship hopes in mind.
The spring season will be no small challenge for the Wildcats. With five tournaments on the schedule for the season, more than any other portion of the season so far, the Cats need to be at the top of their game, coach David Inglis said. If they want to beat last year’s second place finish at the Big Ten Championships — and take down No. 18 Illinois, last year’s winner — they will have to continue to push themselves as they have these past couple of months.
NU has used its winter season well, improving from tournament to tournament. In comparison to splitting the fall season with two bad losses and two strong finishes, the winter has produced a more consistent team.
The Cats struggled in their first match play event of the year, finishing 11th in a field of 14 and were swept 5-0 by the Fighting Illini.
NU bounced back, coming in sixth at the Prestige at PGA West, finishing ahead of No. 14 USC. This week, the team goes up against what Inglis calls the toughest field they’ll face all year at the Southern Highlands Collegiate in Las Vegas.
“This week is really a culmination of our winter season,” Inglis said. “It's a very strong field, and it's exciting to see where we'll stack up.”
The team will continue working through the upcoming academic break; Inglis said that spring break provides time for the team to take one more practice trip before the fast-paced spring season.
The trip will allow the team to hit the ground running in preparation for the Big Ten Championships, NCAA Regionals and NCAA Championships, all within a five-week span in April and May.
“Overall, the guys are working really hard,” Inglis said. “We are seeing the glimpses of spring in Evanston. The guys are excited to get the main part of the season up and running.”
Lauren Duquette/Daily Senior Staffer