Maeve Nelson singles against the University of Oklahoma June 2 in a College World Series game in Oklahoma City. The 2018 graduate of Oak Park and River Forest High School batted .279 with 12 home runs and 42 RBI as the Wildcats won the Big Ten regular-season championship and advanced to the College World Series for the third time in program history. (Northwestern Athletics)

The Northwestern University softball team had a remarkable season this year, winning the Big 10 Conference championship with a 45-13 record and advancing to the College World Series in Oklahoma City for the first time since 2007.

A key figure in the Wildcats’ performance was shortstop Maeve Nelson, a River Forest resident and 2018 graduate of Oak Park and River Forest High School. Nelson batted .279 with 12 home runs and 42 RBI, with an on-base percentage of .422 and a slugging percentage of .570.

Maeve Nelson (Northwestern Athletics)

In a phone interview with the Wednesday Journal, Nelson believed Northwestern’s cohesive chemistry was vital to the team’s success.

“The biggest thing about our team was that we enjoyed being around each other and playing together,” she said. “With a lot of teams, the biggest thing that keeps them back is a lack of camaraderie. I don’t think I realized that until this year because of how special this team was. We were all truly best friends, and we played as a unit.”

This was manifested in perhaps one of Northwestern’s biggest wins this spring. The Wildcats rallied Feb. 18 in Clearwater, Florida, for a dramatic 6-4 extra-inning victory against the UCLA, a perennial Top 10 program.

Nelson ended things with a walk-off three-run homer against UCLA ace Megan Faraimo, one of the nation’s top pitchers. 

Maeve Nelson celebrates after hitting a walk-off three-run homer against UCLA February 18. The 2018 graduate of Oak Park and River Forest High School batted .279 with 12 home runs and 42 RBI to help the Wildcats win the Big Ten Conference regular-season championship and advance to the College World Series for the third time in program history. (Northwestern Athletics)

“What made it great was coming to home plate and seeing how happy my teammates were for me,” she said. “Everyone wanted everyone to do well, and the UCLA game was a team effort. It was important because it showed us we can hang with anyone if we work at it, and it set the standard and expectations for the season.”

Nelson had a few other highlights this spring. She hit two homers and drove in eight runs in a 10-2 Northwestern victory over visiting Purdue on April 17. And she went 3-for-4 with a go-ahead RBI single at Arizona State on May 29 as the Wildcats rallied from a 5-0 deficit to defeat the Sun Devils 8-6 in an NCAA super regional, allowing Northwestern to advance to the College World Series.

Nelson was a top player on OPRF’s back-to-back IHSA Class 4A championship teams in 2016 and 2017. She has plenty of fond memories playing for the Huskies as well as with the Oak Park Windmills program.

“Oak Park was awesome,” she said. “If there’s one thing I can accredit Oak Park for, it’s all the resources and great people I’ve met along the way that have taught me life values. I’m proud to say my career started with the Oak Park Windmills, and I am fiercely loyal to them. 

“OPRF set the standard for success, and I was blessed to have a great high school career. I was hanging out with Fiona [Girardot], Chardonnay [Harris] and all of the other Division I softball players.”

Maeve Nelson of Northwestern University’s softball team connects during a game this season. (Northwestern Athletics)

Nelson hasn’t been able to see OPRF play since being at Northwestern. But she keeps regular contact with Girardot and Harris and said Huskies coach J.P. Coughlin sent her a text during the Wildcats’ postseason run. 

Retired OPRF coach Mel Kolbusz attended Nelson’s game against Notre Dame this spring.

“I learned a lot of leadership skills from Mel and I appreciate how much he valued my opinion,” Nelson said. “It gave me a good stepping stone to come into Northwestern and become part of the leadership. Mel and I had a mutual respect and understanding of each other and for the game.”

This season was the third time in program history Northwestern qualified for the College World Series (2006 and 2007 were the others). Although the Wildcats were eliminated early, losing to eventual national champion Oklahoma and UCLA, Nelson enjoyed living out an experience she had dreamed of.

“It was surreal,” she said. “You dream about that growing up, and it’s really weird seeing it come to fruition. As a kid, it’s something that’s so far-fetched and you never really think you’re going to get there. But then you’re there as a 22-year-old and you’re like, ‘I belong here, I deserve to be here.’ It shows the growth you make as a player and a person, and it was really cool sharing it with my best friends. It’s what you work for in your career; you’re seeing your work come full circle.”

The NCAA granted student-athletes an extra year of eligibility after the 2020 season was canceled. Nelson plans to come back next year for a fifth season and says Northwestern has one thing in mind — a return to Oklahoma City with a different outcome in mind.

“Now that we’ve been there, it’s going to be hard not to expect a return,” she said. “Myself and four other seniors are returning, and I think that’s cool because we’re not returning just to be returning; we’re returning because we want to go back to the World Series and win it.”

Join the discussion on social media!