“It’s pretty surreal to see four years finish up on the home field,” senior midfielder and captain Taylor Thorton said.
In its last home game of the season, Northwestern defeated Penn 15-8 on senior day. And Northwestern’s seniors reminded their team why they will be missed next season, scoring just over half of the team’s goals.
“My class, we’re a powerhouse,” Thorton said.
Thorton said she “found myself getting a little emotional” during the introductions of the teams’ seniors, including Thorton, Beatrice Conley, Erin Fitzgerald, Ali Cassera, Amanda Macaluso, Gabriella Filbotte and Alexa deLyra.
Northwestern wasted no time getting started against Penn. Junior midfielder Alyssa Leonard netted the game’s first goal off a pass from Thorton. Junior midfielder/attacker Kelly Rich followed, scoring after Conley tossed her a pass. Leonard scored once more before Northwestern’s run ended.
And that was just the first two and a half minutes of the game.
After their 3-0 start, the Wildcats slowed down their offense. Senior Erin Fitzgerald took advantage of this setup, earning her usual hat trick early and scoring Northwestern’s last three goals of the half.
Northwestern’s seven draw controls helped set up its goals and the defense’s turnovers, both in transition and in settled defense, helped preserve the lead.
“The girls were really committed,” head coach Kelly Amonte Hiller said. “I think the team really wanted to play for the seniors.”
But Penn was able to work around Northwestern’s solid defense, finding openings in front of sophomore goalie Bridget Bianco, who had two saves in the first half. Tory Bensen scored Penn’s first two goals of the game and Shannon Mangini scored its third. Still, Northwestern took a 6-3 lead into halftime.
At the beginning of the second half, Northwestern picked up right where it left off. Conley, Rich and Cassera scored one after another to start. All three of those goals were assisted, continuing the trend from the first half. Where Northwestern usually racks up its points off free possessions, it instead scored off assists. The Wildcats had six assists against Penn, their biggest total since getting eight against Massachusetts on Feb. 8.
“You can only get so many reps in practice so the more we take time off the field working with each other, the better we’ll be,” Thorton said.
Northwestern’s defense, which held the Quakers to only three goals in the first half, began to falter in the middle of the second. The Wildcats allowed a 3-0 run, cutting the score down to 11-8.
“You can’t get too comfortable,” Fitzgerald said. “You can’t let them back in. We started being smarter with the ball and picking our shots and playing harder on defense.”
But then Northwestern regained its momentum and answered with a 4-0 run that lasted until the end of the game.
The final Northwestern goal was scored by senior midfielder Alex deLyra, capping the win. This goal wasn’t special just because it sealed the victory, but it was also deLyra’s first goal of the season, scored in her last home regular season game as a Wildcat.
“She’s really the heart of our team,” Fitzgerald said. “It got everyone pumped up and feeling good.”
This group of seniors has played in a National Championship for the first three years of their careers and boasted a Player of the Year in Thorton. Even though it was the seniors’ last home game of their collegiate careers, the underclassmen proved they will be more than capable of taking over for the graduating class.
“They have some young guns that are definitely ready and willing to take that position and I really have all the faith and confidence in them next year,” Thorton said of her younger teammates.
Amonte Hiller said she thought this win helped the team take another step forward toward the postseason after the 22-4 loss against Florida. The team’s run in the ALC Tournament will start Friday against the winner of the Penn State-Vanderbilt game, which the team will watch in Baltimore, where the tournament is held this year.
“It’s the close of our regular season so now it’s just draw a line in the sand,” Amonte Hiller said. “It’s anyone’s ballgame. We just have to make sure we go out there and give it all we got everyday.”