Northwestern's infusion of enthusiasm
Editor's note: Graham Hays is counting down to the start of the 2011 college softball season with a look at each of the teams in his top 20. Check back daily for updates.
No. 17 Northwestern
Last season: 25-23, missed NCAA tournament
Who returns: Senior Michelle Batts and junior Adrienne Monka each topped 1.000 in OPS last season. Monka walked 22 more times than during an All-American freshman season, an indication that opposing pitchers were all too happy to pitch around her with Tammy Williams no longer around. Speed also returns in the sophomore tandem of Emily Allard and Kristin Scharkey, presumably a year wiser and no less swift. A mainstay at third, Robin Thompson also returns with speed.
Who departs: In many ways, Lauren Delaney defined both the ups and downs of the past two seasons for the Wildcats. Beyond the circle, few teams got as much power out of second base as the Wildcats did from Nicole Pauly (53 career home runs). And for the first time since the 2006 season, Northwestern will take the field for a game without Kelly Dyer in the starting lineup.
Who arrives: Illinois might have picked up a congressional seat had the census taken place after the softball team's newest class took up residence in Evanston. At seven players, the freshman class offers plenty of quantity and potentially quite a bit of quality. Among the contenders for immediate playing time, Marisa Bast and Mari Majam (younger sister of Hawaii All-American Kelly Majam) will compete with Allard for spots in the middle infield, with all three likely to play between those two positions and outfield. Pitchers Sammy Albanese, a veteran of high-level Gold competition with a lot of movement on her pitches, and Jenny Tyler, a hard-thrower and veteran of competition beyond her years from Arizona, join a four-pitcher staff.
Statistically speaking: The WIldcats finished last season with their worst team batting average since the 2004 campaign, although they still nearly cracked the top 50 nationally in slugging percentage.
Preseason question: Will the new energy translate to a recharged ranking?
More than half the players on Northwestern's roster have never played in the NCAA tournament. Only the five seniors have even experienced a postseason win. That's a brave new world for a program that made back-to-back World Series appearances in 2006 and 2007 and appeared to have a lease with an option to buy on lakefront property in the USA Softball/ESPN.com Top 25.
But after a 2010 season that fell short of the program's own standards, the new arrivals bring more than just an infusion of talent. Last season's record notwithstanding, the Wildcats still had enough of that to merit top-20 consideration. It's the naive inexperience that can often be a liability that could make the freshman class such a potentially joyful asset for Northwestern.
"On Sept. 15, when seven new freshmen arrived, it was an immediate spark," coach Kate Drohan said. "Their excitement, their enthusiasm and their skill set had a tremendous impact on our team right from day one. They've learned a lot along the way, they've learned very quickly. And our returners, our veteran players, have done an outstanding job of celebrating the personality that they bring to the table -- in other words, there's room for them."
It doesn't hurt that most of them have been there so recently. It's difficult to imagine many more taxing freshman seasons than the one Scharkey endured -- and not just as a Californian adjusting to Windy City winters. She was twice felled by injuries, the first a broken hand suffered when she was hit by a pitch in her first college game and then later in the season by a concussion. But that adversity, like the team's season in general, set the stage. The returning Wildcats know both what it's like to be a freshman and what it's like to have a long season. They can help the newcomers with the former, and perhaps the newcomers can help with the latter in return.
"I will say I probably got lost about eight times my first week of classes," Scharkey admitted. "My team was so helpful in getting me to where I needed to be and letting me know what was going on and where things were, and so I really appreciated that from them. Once you fall into the routine, I think it's pretty simple."
So it seemed for Northwestern when it fell into the routine of competing for trips to Oklahoma City, a routine new faces may rediscover.