Heading into Northwestern's April 13 match against Johns Hopkins last year, Kaleigh Craig led the team in goals in the midst of a standout sophomore season. She was coming off a hat trick against Vanderbilt in the previous game, a week and a half after a two-goal performance against top-ranked North Carolina.
Looking to extend a five-game winning streak, Northwestern left Lakeside Field that day with an overtime loss, and Craig left with a season-ending lower-body injury, despite also scoring two goals against the Blue Jays that same day. After sitting out Northwestern's tournament run last year, she's returning to the field with a vengeance.
“It was definitely hard. I felt like I was finally getting going and our team was clicking really well,” Craig said. “I really loved that [group of] seniors, so that was probably the hardest part – not being able to finish the season with them.”
Despite missing eight games, Craig is the leading returning scorer for the ‘Cats from last season, contributing 31 points. In competition against Duke she scored four points, and at Michigan she scored five, making her one of the Wildcats' best offensive weapons.
This year, however, Northwestern added a little more firepower, including freshman Selena Lasota, who scored six points in her collegiate debut – including the game-winner – against USC on Feb. 7.
“It's a little different than last year. I think we have a lot of threats,” said head coach Kelly Amonte Hiller. “We did have a lot of threats last year, but a lot of the scoring and dodging fell on her."
Craig spent this summer recovering from foot surgery and preparing for the year, slowly progressing from two months off her feet to a boot and finally back to regular shoes. She was able to start running again in November.
“I want to be back where I was,” Craig said. “I think we have an amazing amount of talent and I really do expect to win it with them this year.”
Craig said she’s ready to be the team's offensive leader, and Amonte Hiller agrees.
“I'm excited for Kaleigh," Amonte Hiller said. "I think she's really going to find her niche."
It's unclear what that niche is just yet. Kara Mupo led the team's offense on Saturday, scoring five goals while Craig was held without a point – a result that's understandable as the junior midfielder eases her way back into official competition.
For Craig, the recovery process was a part of the journey to another season of personal bests and team victories.
“I just love pushing myself," she said. "I love how fast the game is, and the team aspect. It’s just a lot of fun for me. It’s worth it.”