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A star keeps rising: Lakota East’s Lewis taking Big Ten softball by storm

The uniform is different, purple in place of black. She’s a little older now, stronger, more keenly aware of everything around her.

But while Rachel Lewis may be one of the hot young faces in college softball, she hasn’t changed all that much since graduating from Lakota East High School last year.

“I think she’s acclimated well to college life and college softball,” said her mother Lisa Rogers, a fast-pitch player herself back in the day. “She’s a strong, independent woman. That’s what you hope for in your kids.”

Northwestern University, on the shore of Lake Michigan in this northern Chicago suburb, is Lewis’ home away from home these days. She’s been here less than a year, though it might feel like it’s been longer — she verbally committed as a high school freshman.

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And it’s turned out OK so far.

After a two-game weekend sweep of visiting Ohio State at Sharon J. Drysdale Field, the 5-foot-6 Lewis is hitting .315 with nine doubles, 14 home runs, 49 RBIs, 14 stolen bases, 39 runs, a .775 slugging percentage and a .469 on-base percentage. She’s walked 19 times and been hit by 11 pitches.

She ranks in the Big Ten Conference’s top 10 in the majority of those categories and is No. 1 in RBIs and runs. The homers and RBIs rank among the national leaders.

They’re glowing numbers for anybody and somewhat eye-popping for a freshman. The least-impressed person? That would be Rachel Lynn Lewis.

“I think this is what I should be doing,” she said. “I think I should be doing even better.”

The recruiting process

Kate Drohan is in her 17th season as Northwestern’s head coach. She knows a bit about winning and high-level players.

Fourteen All-America honors have been garnered by Wildcats on her watch. Northwestern has advanced to the NCAA tournament 11 times in the Drohan era and made it to the College World Series in 2006 and 2007, finishing in the top three both times.

Northwestern University second baseman Rachel Lewis talks about her team and the outstanding freshman season she'™s having with the Wildcats softball team.

But the last two years have ended with losing records. The Wildcats were a combined 52-57 in 2016-17. The journey to rise again starts with recruiting, just like all other college sports.

For Drohan, it means attracting players like Rachel Lewis.

“I think it was her freshman year or just before her freshman year that we first saw her,” Drohan said. “We just thought with her style of play, her physicality, her speed, her power … we knew she would have an immediate impact here in our program.

“She’s a five-tool player. There’s really only one player that she reminds me of and that’s Tammy Williams, who’s the only (four-year) All-American we’ve ever had. She’s got a lot of that in her.”

Williams was a third-team All-American as a freshman and a first-teamer her last three seasons, and she made two All-America squads as a senior in 2009.

Northwestern was the only school Lewis visited. She gave some thought to places like Oregon and Missouri and Kentucky, but her heart was already in Evanston.

“You know when you know,” Lewis said. “I just fell in love with this place and the coaching staff. I felt their coaching style was perfect for me. I could see myself here.”

She played with the Beverly Bandits in the summer for four years and won three national championships with the club.

Summer ball is where college coaches formulate most of their recruiting ideas. They don’t have much time to think about high schools in the spring because that’s when their own teams are in season. It’s also logical because summer ball is a higher caliber of play.

Drohan has three freshman Bandits on her roster, and Lewis, pitcher Kenna Wilkey of Braidwood, Ill., and third baseman Mac Dunlap of Crown Point, Ind., are all playing significant roles this spring.

Lakota East shortstop Rachel Lewis makes solid contact with the ball on April 1, 2015, during the Thunderhawks’ 9-0 win at Fairfield. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF

Lewis was a shortstop at East and primarily an outfielder with the Bandits. At Northwestern, she’s the starting second baseman.

“The biggest question mark we had was where she was going to play,” Drohan said. “We kind of went through that process of putting her at second base in the fall. We essentially decided to do it because of her speed and the different defensive sets we can play with her in the infield. She’s done a very good job of working at it and adjusting.”

Lewis has no problem with playing second base. She’s been getting some help from Williams, the aforementioned All-America shortstop who works in Indianapolis and gets up to Northwestern whenever she’s able.

“I’m liking second right now,” Lewis said. “I wouldn’t be opposed to playing outfield. I just feel like I’m more in the game when I’m in the infield. I like the fast pace and having to do something every pitch and being able to talk to my pitchers and other infielders. In the outfield, you’re kind of on your own.”

Drohan said Lewis hits the weight room hard, is detail-oriented and actually likes the daily grind that is NCAA Division I softball.

“Not only is Rachel a great player, everybody just likes being around her,” Drohan said. “She’s great in the dugout. She’s really true to herself. She’s an extremely consistent, very honest person.”

The veteran coach has been all in with Lewis at Northwestern. When the Wildcats opened the season against seventh-ranked Arizona on Feb. 9 in Tempe, Ariz., the rookie was third in the batting order (she was 1 for 3 with a stolen base).

“I’ve been watching Arizona and teams like that on TV for however long I can remember,” Lewis said. “I was pretty nervous before the game. I think I had my first hit, walk and strikeout in that game. I told my mom I got it all out of the way, so it’s fine.”

“She was in the 3-hole my first game in the fall,” Drohan said. “That kind of gives you an idea of how much I believe in this kid.”

Northwestern University second baseman Rachel Lewis makes a play at first during a game against Tennessee on Feb. 24 in Cathedral City, Calif. PHOTO COURTESY OF NORTHWESTERN ATHLETICS

Lewis hit third in the first 35 games for Northwestern, which is 25-13 overall and 8-5 in the Big Ten. Drohan then put her in the leadoff spot at Purdue on April 8 to give the lineup a jolt and said it’s likely Lewis will hit first or second moving forward. She filled the No. 2 position in both games against OSU.

“I think the more we can force people to have to make a decision to pitch to her, especially early in the game … that could be a lot of fun,” Drohan said. “If you look at her numbers, she’s come up big in our biggest moments, especially against really good teams. Her competitive mentality is so strong. She’s kind of risen to every level that she’s played at, and I think that’s happening for us now.”

Lewis is a perfectionist when it comes to softball, so taking failure in stride isn’t really an option. But she said she’s getting better at controlling her emotions in those situations.

That process of attempting to deal with adversity in a positive way really started for Lewis when she was a junior at East. That’s when she had to face her biggest athletic challenge head on.

‘I missed it so much’

On Dec. 9, 2015, Rachel Lewis had a home game with the Thunderhawks girls basketball team against Middletown. The stat sheet says she played six minutes and had no numbers across the board.

But it was an eventful evening to be sure.

Lewis went up for a rebound and came down on somebody’s foot. Her left ankle did not react well.

“I think it was actually my teammate’s foot that I came down on. I don’t remember who it was,” Lewis said. “I chipped a bone in my ankle and badly sprained it as well.”

Lakota East’s Rachel Lewis (second from left) high-fives teammate Brianna Castner during a meeting in the circle on April 11, 2017, at Lakota West. The visiting Thunderhawks won 8-2. GREG LYNCH/STAFF

Her left leg has been a problem through the years. She had to have surgery for a bone chip in her left knee in grade school.

Surgery was also required for the ankle. The bone chip was removed, but the ligament damage was left to heal on its own. And the road to recovery started there.

Lewis did as much upper-body work as she could. But she ultimately missed most of her junior softball season.

“It wasn’t like the surgery was pins and screws and everything else, but it’s one of those injuries that can be aggravating forever even after getting fixed,” Lisa Rogers said. “Getting through it with her was the hardest part, just having restraints on her to keep her from doing things she shouldn’t be doing.”

The ankle needed the idle time, so sitting out most of the high school season proved to be the right move. In retrospect, even more time off probably would’ve been a good thing. But she played for the Bandits that summer.

Lewis did find her way back into the East lineup as a hitter for four games at the end of the season, but she clearly wasn’t herself. A .546 hitter in each of her first two campaigns as a Thunderhawk, she was 2-for-9 with two doubles and two RBIs as a junior.

“That was a long and painful recovery,” Lewis said. “It was frustrating because I felt like I could be out there, but I would try to do something and be like, ‘OK, I’m not ready yet.’ I missed it so much. I wanted to do anything I could for my team.

“It was a rough summer too. My ankle hurt quite a bit that summer because I think I forced it a little too much. That year was all around not fabulous, but I think it was a learning curve for me too. I think it was good to deal with failure.”

Lewis said she didn’t feel 100 percent until probably the following spring. She returned to form by hitting .604 with 11 homers, 56 RBIs and 29 steals as a senior.

East coach Steve Castner wasn’t surprised that Lewis came back stronger than ever.

Northwestern University second baseman Rachel Lewis attempts to turn a double play in a game against Minnesota last month in Evanston, Ill. PHOTO COURTESY OF NORTHWESTERN ATHLETICS

“She just seemed to love the game, and it was evident in the way she worked at everything,” Castner said. “There were some things she would do in games that just aren’t coachable. It’s an instinct. It’s an experience. It’s an assessment of the situation quicker than a coach can respond. She’s able to do that.”

Lewis said her analytical approach to the game strengthened during her junior season at East.

“As much as I wanted to play, I felt like it was a great learning experience for me sitting on the sidelines and learning the game even more,” she said. “I’d always just kind of played and that was that. But I got really close to Coach Castner and all the coaches that season because I just had the time to talk to them like human beings instead of coach/player.”

Castner traveled to North Carolina to watch Lewis in February and plans to see her play at Rutgers this weekend.

He’s been coaching for 29 years and said Lewis might be the best player to come out of Southwest Ohio during that time.

“I can’t really name a player that was better than her in this area,” Castner said. “Now there probably were people that were there with her, but I can’t name one that was better. She could steal bases as good or better than anybody. She could hit the long ball. She could bunt for a hit and did it pretty regularly. She plays very well defensively. She’s very smart, very respectful of the other team.

“I think that starts with her family. Her mom is always there to keep her grounded. I think the support she gets provides her with the backbone and the confidence she has on the field.”

The family connection

Lisa Rogers was an outfielder for Northwood University in Midland, Mich., and graduated in 1993. She was Lisa Herner back then, and her name still appears several times in the Northwood record book.

She’s the school’s all-time leader in triples with 27.

“That’s probably one record that can never be broken in today’s times because we didn’t have fences or we played on men’s fences,” Rogers said.

“It was a small scale compared to what Rachel is doing now and the level that she’s competing at, but I did enjoy the game. My family has grown up playing. My grandpa played and all his brothers and my mom and her sisters … it’s been in the family a long time.”

Rachel laughed when she was asked about her mother’s ability to produce triples.

“That’s cool, but I don’t think she was that fast,” she said. “That’s why they weren’t home runs.”

The family moved from Michigan to Liberty Township when Rachel was 8.

“I think she was born athletic. She kind of came out with muscles,” Rogers said. “She started playing T-ball in Michigan, then we moved down here and it was like, ‘Well, I think she’s pretty decent. Maybe we should try select ball.’ It was select back then as opposed to travel. That’s how it got started.”

Rachel’s stepfather Les Rogers coached her for several years before she moved on to the Bandits.

“His strength is hitting,” Lewis said. “Having him being able to just go out to the garage and hit with me if I was struggling was huge for me. All he has to say is one word and I’ll make that adjustment because I’ve had the same hitting style since I started playing on his team.”

Northwestern University freshman second baseman Rachel Lewis. PHOTO COURTESY OF NORTHWESTERN ATHLETICS

Her father Russ Lewis is working at the University of Illinois and gets to see her play from time to time. Rachel’s sister Ali is a sophomore softball player for East.

“We’re getting plenty of softball right now,” Lisa Rogers said. “We probably make about half of Rachel’s games. I don’t think what she’s doing surprises me. It’s a really good, supportive environment at Northwestern. It helps as a player to have someone believe in you and challenge you and keep pushing you to improve your game. Rachel loves that.”

A passion for softball

It may seem funny now, but softball wasn’t always Lewis’ favorite sport. Basketball was No. 1 on her list for a long time.

What separated softball from basketball through the years?

“I think it’s just the mental focus you have to have and the work you have to put in,” Lewis said. “In basketball, you just kind of run around. Obviously there’s a lot of work if you’re actually really good, but I wasn’t that great. Softball just clicked for me.

“I think having my mom play and everyone around me being softball, softball, softball … we just lived and breathed softball. That’s all we watched during the college season. I just thought I could hang with those types of girls and hang with that level. I think that’s where I saw myself.”

Lewis, who turned 19 in March, said the most difficult part of college softball and the biggest change for her has been film work. Now she has to study pitchers, and they’re no doubt studying her.

“That’s been really hard for me because I never really paid attention to pitching before,” Lewis said. “I would just go up there and hit. Now people are seeing where they think my weaknesses are and going for that. It’s all about different types of pitches and different strategies for me now.”

She’s always been a performer in the classroom as well. Lewis doesn’t have a major yet, but is leaning toward economics with a business minor. Playing professional softball is also a goal.

Lewis is all about Northwestern’s cause right now. The Wildcats will travel to Notre Dame on Wednesday before their three-game road trip to Rutgers.

It’s been a season of accolades for Lewis. She’s been named Big Ten Player of the Week once and Big Ten Freshman of the Week twice.

When she hears Drohan comparing her to a four-time All-American or Castner saying she may be the best player in Greater Miami Conference history, Lewis doesn’t ignore those words. She tries to live up to them.

“It just motivates me having people like that who support me,” Lewis said. “I hold myself to a high standard, so I felt some pressure to please the people that had supported me throughout the way here. I definitely wanted to make a big impact on the team and on the Big Ten. Hopefully that’s what I’m doing.”

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