The Northwestern Wildcats likely never dreamed they would be playing on the final Sunday of Big Ten baseball.
At the beginning of the season, the team was likely just hoping to reach the Big Ten Baseball Tournament for the first time since 2010. That was the step the program needed to take. At 24-28, there was no NCAA tournament bid to rely on. The Wildcats simply wanted to end the season with a little reward.
Well, there was still one way to the tournament. It was nothing but a pipe dream surely. The Wildcats, a moribund program that has scrounged at the bottom of the conference seemingly forever. Baseball was an afterthought at Northwestern.
For the last week, the Wildcats more than exceeded expectations. They danced all over them and raised the expectation levels for the entire program.
In one week, the Wildcats made it feel like 2010, the last time they went to the Big Ten Tournament, and then 1987, the last time they made the tournament final. Unfortunately, the Wildcats are not partying like it is 1957, the last time they went to the NCAA tournament.
Northwestern fell to Iowa 13-4, falling behind by five runs in the first inning and never truly recovering. The Hawkeyes were the ones to win their first Big Ten tournament title.
Still, Northwestern’s run — which included a come-from-behind upset win over Michigan in the team’s first game in Bloomington — was a sign of things to come for the program. The Wildcats showed poise to hold on in what was a crazy week in Bloomington.
In a 9 a.m. game against Minnesota, NU scored three runs in the bottom of the seventh inning to get an 11-7 victory. Joe Horscheit made his mark, hitting his first home run of the tournament to put an exclamation point. Horscheit was named to the all-tournament team and would have been the most outstanding player had Northwestern won Sunday.
In another 9 a.m. game Sunday, Northwestern recovered from a loss to Maryland on Saturday to build a 6-0 lead behind Cooper Weathersbee. His solid six innings of work gave the Wildcats the cushion they needed to hold on and reach the Big Ten Tournament final. Defense proved critical for the Cats as the Terrapins made one last charge, hitting a grand slam to make the game tighter and tighter as the innings wore on.
Horscheit represents a link to Northwestern’s past. He arrived in Evanston before coach Spencer Allen took over, playing for longtime coach Paul Stevens. The last two years he has continued his stellar play, finishing this year hitting .359 with seven home runs and 45 RBIs.
He continued his stellar play throughout the Big Ten tournament, hitting a couple home runs and getting named to the all-tournament team. He, and the other seniors like Weathersbee, a walk-on who went to Northwestern to join the marching band, leave a foundation for Allen to continue building.
Northwestern was not supposed to be at this level quite yet. The Wildcats were still changing the culture and looking to bring in more talent. This season even, saw the team get off to a slow start and look like more of the same.
The Wildcats were able to rally to end the season and find their way into the Big Ten tournament. They made all the plays they had to and get back to this stage. From there, Northwestern let the momentum of the weekend carry the team into the tournament final.
It was something no one saw coming. Probably even the Wildcats themselves. They were the surprise of the tournament, as much as the eventual champion Hawkeyes.
Northwestern built some confidence for next season with its play this week. The team ended the season on an extreme high — accomplishing its big goal of making the Big Ten tournament.
Allen has a lot to build on with a balanced roster and now a belief the Wildcats can indeed accomplish a lot.