The crowd looks up to see the neon yellow ball fly over the fence. Then another. And another. In most cases, a team would be excited about the numerous home runs, but not today. Today, when the Northwestern team looks across the diamond they don't see fear in their opponents' eyes; they see the look of a team that wants redemption from what just happened. Unfortunately for that team, the DePaul Blue Demons, there was to be no redemption today as Northwestern pulls away for an easy 12-4 victory over its local rival.
The DePaul-Northwestern softball rivalry has turned into more than just who gets an additional ‘W' in the win column. It has turned into a game for pride.
The start of the rivalry's history is in question. According to Northwestern, the series started in 1978 when the teams faced off in two games at the Illinois Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women state tournament, of which Northwestern won both. DePaul, however, does not recognize the start of the rivalry until 1986, the first year it started participating in Division I softball.
The start of the rivalry isn't what it is important, however. The rivalry has included blowouts, one-run games, extra-inning games, and games in the NCAA Tournament and despite the magnitude of the rivalry, it has always been a friendly one.
"There's a lot of kids from the same areas and we've all played against one another or with one another," Northwestern junior Kelly Dyer said. "I think that just fuels the fire more so because we know how the other plays and it just makes it more fun that way."
Women's college softball was consistently dominated from 1982 to 2000 by teams from Texas, the West Coast and Southeast. Of the 26 national championships recorded since softball became an NCAA sport in 1982, all but two, Oklahoma (2000) and Michigan (2005), have been from these regions. As Oklahoma and Michigan's recent wins show, the traditionally dominant regions' stranglehold is lessening, leaving room for DePaul and Northwestern to be serious contenders. One of the biggest challenges for the teams from colder climates is that they aren't able to practice year-round.
In 2007, both DePaul and Northwestern were two of the eight teams to make it to the Women's College World Series in Oklahoma City. Northwestern was the second overall seeded team in the NCAA Tournament, coming off of a second place finish at the Big 10 Tournament, while DePaul earned the 14th overall seed after losing in the semifinals of the Big East Tournament. After that though, their roads to Oklahoma City took a similar turn, as both DePaul and Northwestern went undefeated in their NCAA Regionals and Super Regionals. With the sweeps, the local teams became two of the eight teams in the World Series and for the first time in College World Series history, there were two schools representing the same area. There had been teams from the same state in the eight-team field before, but never two teams in such close proximity to one another.
"We're both proud that there were two teams from Illinois," DePaul Head Coach Eugene Lenti said. "I mean that's pretty cool and doesn't happen."
In their runs to the College World Series, both teams have used a mixture of new and returning players to lead the way. On the current Northwestern roster, nine players have participated in a Women's College World Series, with four members having participated in both the 2006 and 2007 World Series. The DePaul roster includes eight players that participated in the 2007 College World Series. On both teams, players were thrown into the fire as freshmen and succeeded. One such player was star DePaul pitcher Becca Heteniak.
"Coming in, I didn't think that I'd get as much time as I did, but it got me to play in pressure earlier, which helped me a lot," Heteniak said. "It helped me become more calm, because nerves will always be there, but I'm more relaxed now."
Northwestern shortstop Tammy Williams agrees in a way, but feels everything is more on the individual player. "Pressure is something you create. Being successful at this level and especially during postseason, you need to play the game and not let all of the other factors get into your head."
The key for the two powerhouses is maintaining the success. Yes, it is great that the past eight years have been some of the best for the two programs, but the goal is to maintain that success so they can be like the teams on the West Coast and win on a consistent basis.
"To be successful what a program needs to do is create a base for tradition," DePaul senior third baseman Amber Patton said. "The hardest, but yet most important part of maintaining success is building a base. I think we're on the right track, but tradition takes time. We're definitely on our way though."
Williams put it in a perspective aimed more towards this year's team when she said the following.
"Through postseason, we need to focus on ourselves and live in the moment. We've gone through so much already this year as a team and we've seen that we play our best when everything else is erased from our mind and we enjoy what is being thrown at us."
Despite the schools being located a mere 11.8 miles from one another, the two could not be more different.
DePaul is a Catholic university, located in Chicago's beautiful Lincoln Park neighborhood. Twenty four thousand, four hundred students make up the school, which is the largest Catholic university in the nation.
"What we offer is unique, here at DePaul," Lenti said. "We are located in a big city, which is non-traditional if you look all across the nation. Add in a great chance at a private institution and the perks of being a teaching institution, and you have a school that whose quality is undeniable."
Northwestern, on the other hand, is also private institution, but located in the suburb of Evanston. Few schools rival its academic excellence. In the world of sports, especially recently, academically challenging schools such as Northwestern have had the label of a school that's hard to get into and therefore can't succeed athletically. Northwestern, however, has proven that this stereotype is not always correct. The school has won numerous conference championships and five consecutive lacrosse national championships, all in addition to their recent appearances in the College Softball World Series.
"The key here is our education," said Northwestern Head Coach Kate Drohan. Like Lenti, she feels that Chicago is a huge selling point. "The city of Chicago is another major key. It's the center point for a lot of things that go on in this nation. What really helps is that it's a great city and near so many things."
"It's games like these that make college fun," Patton said. "It's like you're playing for a title, but against your friends. What could be better than that?"
Rivalry on the Diamond
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