For a team fresh off a championship, living up to the expectations and pressure that come with defending a title can be problematic. With Northwestern’s women’s lacrosse team, though, you never would have guessed it.
After winning their sixth national championship in seven years, the Wildcats tore through the NCAA to a 19-2 record in a season marked by both team and individual success.
Top-ranked Northwestern kicked off its 2012 campaign with a visit to Palo Alto, Calif. on Feb. 10 to play the No. 6 Stanford Cardinal. The ‘Cats crushed the Cardinal 18-6 with the help of hat tricks from senior Shannon Smith and junior Erin Fitzgerald, and then followed their success over Stanford with wins at No. 5 Duke (13-5) and No. 9 Syracuse (11-9 OT). This kicked off a 14-game winning streak that ended with Northwestern’s loss to Florida in Evanston on April 21. Ten of those wins came against ranked opponents.
The Wildcats’ winning streak almost came to a close against the No. 14 Ohio State Buckeyes at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass., but Fitzgerald’s game-tying goal with 19 seconds left in regulation – her fifth of the day – sent the game into overtime. Four caused turnovers and three ground ball recoveries from Alex Frank helped propel Northwestern’s comeback and Smith tallied two goals in the extra period to keep the winning streak alive.
Then, on May 20, the Wildcats beat the No. 7 Duke Blue Devils 11-7 to clinch their eighth consecutive Final Four berth since 2005. Shannon Smith broke Northwestern’s all-time scoring record in the game, turning in a three-goal performance. The senior eclipsed the record of 250 goals, previously held by Kristen Kjellman (Comm. ’07), seven minutes into the second period to give the ‘Cats a 7-4 lead.
While Smith called standing alone at the top of the Wildcat scoring list “a huge honor” after the game, she quickly shared credit for her success.
“I wouldn’t have any of those goals if it wasn’t for my teammates,” she said. “They’re the ones cutting and keeping their defenders busy, allowing me to take my girl one-on-one or pass me the ball.”
Northwestern only lost two games this season, and both of them were to the No. 2 Florida Gators.
The first came April 21 at Lakeside Field by a score of 8-7, the ‘Cats’ first loss at home since a 2010 defeat by then-No. 2 North Carolina.
The second came against the Gators in the American Lacrosse Conference (ALC) championship game on May 5, a game that had never been won by a team other than the Wildcats. The ‘Cats lost 14-7 and were beat 18-5 by the Gators in draw controls, which have since been a main point of focus for Coach Kelly Amonte Hiller and the team.
What comes next?
Northwestern will take on the No. 3 Maryland Terrapins – Coach Amonte Hiller’s alma mater – at Stony Brook University in New York on May 25. The Wildcats are 5-7 all-time against the Terps, dating back to Northwestern’s first incarnation as a varsity team in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
During the Amonte Hiller era, Northwestern is 3-1 against Maryland, and the two teams have met in the last two NCAA Championship games. Maryland beat the ‘Cats in 2010 by a score of 13-11, but Northwestern won last year 8-7 to reclaim the national title – its sixth in seven years.
Junior defender Taylor Thornton is a finalist for the Tewaarton Award, college lacrosse’s most valuable player award given to one male and one female lacrosse player each year. Previous Wildcat winners are Shannon Smith (2011), Hannah Nielsen (2008-09) and Kristen Kjellman (2006-07).
On May 23, US Lacrosse announced Coach Amonte Hiller will be inducted into the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame for her achievements with the Maryland Terrapins. Coach Amonte Hiller, who earned four All-American honors and the 1996 Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) Female Athlete of the Year in College Park, will be inducted in a ceremony on Oct. 20 in Hunt Valley, Md.