- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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It takes a certain hardiness of spirit to heed the alarm clock's wail on a January morning and trudge through the bitter cold, a wicked wind whipping snow with more action on it than anything Cat Osterman throws, just to lift weights and take hacks in a batting cage. That's before the day really picks up steam, with lectures on exciting topics like America's meat-packing industry in the early 20th century.
It takes an even hardier spirit to do all of that when you could be waking up somewhere much closer to home, where the nearby waves won't induce hypothermia and the golf courses don't double as cross-country skiing venues.
So maybe it shouldn't be a surprise to learn that after pitching the first 16 innings of an epic marathon against Minnesota last weekend, No. 14 Northwestern (33-10) junior pitcher Eileen Canney wasn't interested in calling it a day.
"About the 16th inning, I went over to her and said, 'Leeney, do you want to keep going?'" Northwestern coach Kate Drohan said. "And she said, 'Absolutely.'
"That's really something. Especially this time of year, you know, it's the time of year where everybody is thinking about positioning for the postseason. And I knew she was serious about the win."
The Wildcats finally got the much-needed win in 18 innings, and Canney got an NCAA record-tying 28 strikeouts for her effort in going the distance. With fellow pitcher Courtnay Foster rested and ready for the second game of the doubleheader (the teams played a staggering 25 innings of softball on the day), Northwestern swept the Gophers to maintain a small cushion atop the Big Ten standings.
As a result, the Wildcats (33-10, 11-2 Big Ten) climbed to No. 14 in this week's ESPN.com/USA Softball Top 25, the highest ranking in the program's history. Facing a four-game road trip to Michigan State and No. 13 Michigan this weekend, Northwestern could continue that upward trend in the rankings while potentially clinching the right to host the Big Ten tournament as regular-season champions.
The extra home games would be a blessing for a team that played at home just 10 times in the regular season, opening its home schedule on March 31 and concluding it on April 20. But that's life in the Big Ten, and as the Wolverines proved in winning the national championship last season, parkas are now entirely acceptable attire in softball high society.
And Evanston, Ill., is hardly Siberia. Just ask the eight players on this year's roster, nearly half the team, who are from Arizona or California.
Lake Michigan isn't the Pacific Ocean, and the fish tacos leave something to be desired, but for most of the year, there aren't many places more enjoyable than the Chicago area (Wrigley Field is just seven miles from Evanston). Not to mention few things look better in a job interview than a degree from Northwestern.
"Northwestern has a lot to offer, particularly for student-athletes who are serious about their education," Drohan said about the type of prospects she's able to recruit. "It's a great urban environment."
It also has Drohan to offer.
A Connecticut native who starred at Providence College from 1992 to 1995, leading the Friars to the school's first Big East title, Drohan is already a rising star in the coaching ranks in just her fifth year at the Northwestern helm. She took over for school mainstay Sharon Drysdale in 2002 after serving as an assistant for four years and hasn't looked back.
Just seven years removed from her own playing career when she got the job, Drohan wasted little time hiring an assistant she knew she could rely on: Caryl Drohan, her twin sister and teammate at Providence. A proponent of the power game (the Wildcats have by far the fewest sacrifice bunts in the conference with 22 -- Purdue leads with 86 -- and Kate jokingly says her sister thinks bunts are a waste of time), Caryl has transformed the offense into a potent group that leads the Big Ten in both slugging percentage (.441) and on-base percentage (.375).
Typical of the head coach (and it takes no more than a few minutes on the phone with her to know it's typical), she's quick to hand off credit for her team's success to just about everyone but herself.
"I learned a lot about running a program, managing a game," she said of her time as Drysdale's assistant. "Everything I know, I learned from Sharon. So I'm really grateful for that opportunity. It just ended up being the right place at the right time. And I've been really blessed with good ballplayers. Believe me, I don't have a magic formula! I've had good people with great character, and good people attract good people."
And she's proof of that.
Consider the travel arrangements necessary for Senior Day this season. All five players in the senior class, the first class recruited by the Drohans, are from Arizona, California or Washington. All five came to Evanston to help rebuild a program that had stumbled to a 20-25 record in 2001.
"Courtnay kind of took a chance on us," Drohan says of senior pitcher Courtnay Foster, who came from Tucson, Ariz., and won 19 games as a freshman. "Courtnay's part of my senior class, the recruiting class that Caryl and I put together before we even coached an inning together. She kind of believed in what we were going to do. And she's really grown as a pitcher; she's gotten a lot better during her four years here."
Then there is Kristin Amegin, the slugger hitting .292 with nine home runs and 33 RBI in her final season. Before Amegin arrived in Evanston, no player had hit more than seven home runs in a season or 20 home runs in a career. After getting used to the college game with one home run as a freshman, Amegin has hit 33 home runs in the last three seasons, including a single-season record of 14 last season that included two postseason walk-off shots.
The original class was the foundation of something special, and it didn't go unnoticed. The subsequent class brought Canney, first baseman Garland Cooper and outfielder Katie Logan. In Canney and Cooper, the Wildcats found the stars to put out front. The Big Ten Player of the Year in 2005, Cooper is hitting .400 with eight home runs and a team-leading 35 RBI this season.
And make no mistake, Canney is an ace, the kind of pitcher a team seemingly must have in the postseason. Foster leads the team with 18 wins, but a 15-5 record, while impressive, doesn't do justice to Canney's other numbers. Aside from ranking 11th nationally in strikeouts per seven innings (she's tied with Anjelica Selden and ahead of Arizona State's Katie Burkhart and Cal's Kristina Thorson), Canney has a 1.19 ERA and just 37 walks and a .154 batting average against in 159.1 innings.
To put it bluntly, she's Jennie Ritter before Ritter gained fame with a national championship.
And like last year's Wolverines found magic with freshman slugger Samantha Findlay, the Wildcats are thriving thanks in part to a fresh face of their own in shortstop Tammy Williams. Turning what could have been one of the first serious blows to Drohan's regime -- the injury-inspired departure of second-team All-America shortstop Stephanie Churchwell -- into a positive, Williams has gone from a lightly recruited pitcher-turned-third baseman to an elite shortstop.
Playing third base when Drohan first saw her -- "Oh great, she can get to a ground ball in the dugout," Drohan recalls of her first impression of a player with too much range for the hot corner -- Williams has settled in at shortstop and at the plate this season. She's hitting .396, and with 11 home runs already, has a shot at Amegin's single-season record.
"Her on-base percentage, her slugging percentage, her runs scored," the coach rattles off in talking about her prize freshman's contributions. "You name it, she's contributed in every facet of our offense."
Seriously, a little wind chill is going to stop this momentum?
Northwestern is still a program on the rise under Drohan. The school has three Women's College World Series appearances and 15 NCAA Tournament victories to its credit (only Michigan and Iowa have more of both among Big Ten schools), but it's a new era and making the trip to Oklahoma City this season might require skipping a few steps on the typically slow road to success.
But it's not out of the question for a team that has already beaten UCLA, Cal and Oregon State this season.
Drohan said her players weren't awed by the experience of playing at Easton Stadium, which possibly contributed to Northwestern's 3-2 win against the Bruins in late March, the team's 26th consecutive road game.
And with the road they've taken, as a team and as individuals, to get to this point, why would they be?
Taking the next step begins this weekend, because Northwestern can't hope to take care of business in the NCAA Tournament if it can't take care of business in the Big Ten. And don't expect Sunday's doubleheader with Michigan to block the team's view of the big picture.
"Last year, Michigan State beat us on our field, which put us in kind of a must-win situation against Michigan, so I don't think I even need to talk about [looking past Michigan State] with my team," Drohan said. "They certainly remember that feeling, losing to Michigan State in the eighth inning at home. And when it's all said and done, it's all about that winning percentage."
With Drohan in charge, Northwestern is building a program that should be a national power for years to come, making Evanston as much a part of the sport's landscape as Ann Arbor, Austin or Knoxville.
But for the players who started the revival and believed enough in their coach to brave the weather and the academics, the present is what matters right now.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's softball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
Northwestern's senior class took a leap of faith when coach Kate Drohan came knocking. The Wildcats' gamble is paying off, as they prepare for the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments.