Season Preview: Women’s Lacrosse

WNUR Sports Director Joe Misulonas (@jmisulonas) explains how the story of the 2014 Northwestern lacrosse team won’t be defined by the players it lost in recent years.

It’s hard to believe that a season that ends with a Final Four appearance for a Northwestern athletic program would be considered a disappointment. But for Northwestern women’s lacrosse last year, that was the case. Prior to their ouster in the semifinals, the Wildcats had made eight straight national championship appearances, winning seven of them.

Heading into last season, the question was whether or not Northwestern could replace the offensive production of Shannon Smith, who had previously won the Tewaarton Award (given to the best lacrosse player in the country) during her junior year and followed it up with an equally great senior season. However, last year’s team returned three of the team’s top four scorers from the previous season, and the team remained strong offensively, averaging 12.32 goals per game. And they remained one of the best defensive teams in the nation, even with goalie Bridget Bianco stepping in as a first-year starter.

This year’s team lost even more talent than last year’s team. In the IWLCA Coaches preseason rankings, Northwestern finished fourth behind North Carolina (the returning champs, who knocked the Wildcats out in the Final Four), Maryland, and Syracuse, all three of whom received first-place votes (the Wildcats did not). Still, being ranked in the top 4 is an indicator that Northwestern is still one of the top programs in the nation, and there’s plenty of things to be excited about this season.

Here is a position-by-position breakdown of the 2014 Northwestern Women’s Lacrosse team:

Offense

Last year, Northwestern lost Shannon Smith, one of the best offensive players in program history. However, they returned three of their top four scorers otherwise. That is not the case this year. Not only did the team lose Erin Fitzgerald, who’s 65 points led the team, but they also lost Amanda Macaluso, Taylor Thornton, and Ali Cassera, who were all in the top five in point on the team. It was difficult for Northwestern to replace Smith’s production last year, but losing four their top five scorers will be a more arduous task.

This is not to say this year’s team is lacking talent. Leading returning scorer Alyssa Leonard netted 49 points last year, and her offensive game improved significantly as the season went on. Combined with her 125 draw controls, Leonard will be expected not only to be Northwestern’s dominant scorer, but also help the team control time of possession, a necessity for Northwestern this season.

Besides Leonard, the Wildcats have several valuable players who saw limited time last season due to the number of skilled seniors on the team. Kat DeRonda saw limited time last season due to injury. In 2012, she was one of the team’s top 4 scorers. She’ll be due for a rebound season. Kelly Rich’s goal scoring increased as the 2013 season went on, so her role in the offense will be more prominent. And Kaleigh Craig and Nancy Dunbar showed promise in their limited time last season. There may be inexperience on this year’s team, but that doesn’t mean there’s a lack of talent.

Who to Watch on Offense: Christina Esposito. As a freshman last year, Esposito scored seven goals and grabbed eight assists through the first eight games before suffering a season-ending injury. She’ll be back this season, and if she can average around the two points per game she did last year, she’ll be an impact player for this team.

Defense

Northwestern will also see some new faces on the defensive side of the field. First of all, they lose Taylor Thornton, a Tewaarton Award Finalist who was one of the best two-way players in women’s lacrosse the past two seasons. Thornton’s loss will be the hardest to replace because very few players have both the ability to shut down a team’s top scorer and also provide instant offensive spark.

Besides Thornton, the team also lost Gabriella Flibotte who was arguably the team’s best defender last year. Flibotte led the team in ground balls, was second in draw controls, and led the team in caused turnovers with 49 (Thornton finished second at 29). The loss of Flibotte and Thornton will be a concern for this team.

Like the offense, there is plenty of talent still on the defensive side for this team. Kerri Harrington is one of the best face guarders in the women’s lacrosse. When Northwestern beat Syracuse in the Finals in 2012, Harrington’s ability to shut down Michele Tumolo (a Tewaarton finalist) was a major factor.

Christy Turner and Kate MacDonald both return to the team this year. I expect the two of them will share time as this year’s “Taylor Thornton.” Both will play defense, and they’ll split time in the offensive zone. If last year is any indication, MacDonald saw more extensive time playing on offense near the end of the last season, so she may emerge as the dominant two way player on this team.

Who to Watch on Defense: Lauren Murray. Murray is second on the team in returning draw controls behind Leonard. Leonard is one of the best in the nation in this category, but she can’t win every single one (or can she?). Especially if Leonard is going to be the team’s leading scorer this season, Murray may see more time in the draw circle to take some of the pressure off Leonard.

Goalie

This is the one category we know what Northwestern is getting. After Brianne Lomanto graduated, Bridget Bianco took over as starting goalie and had a terrific season. Her 7.63 goals against average and .433 save percentage were some of the best in women’s lacrosse last season. Bianco is a solid goalie that this team won’t have to worry about.

The question at goalie is only a question about defense. Will the loss of Flibotte and Thornton mean more shots on goal for Bianco? Can the team rally around Leonard control the draw and time of possession? Bianco proved she is not a question mark on this team last year. The question is if the team rallies around her.

Overall

If this sounds like a lot of question marks, remember this: Northwestern is ranked fourth in the preseason rankings (they actually received more votes than Syracuse, but Syracuse’s first place votes propelled them to no. 3). Northwestern women’s lacrosse doesn’t rebuild, they reload. Yes, this team lost a lot of talent and key contributors from last year’s team, many of whom were major factors in the 2012 championship run. But coach Kelly Amonte Hiller (I just realized I wrote 1,000 words about Northwestern women’s lacrosse before mentioning Amonte Hiller, one of the winningest coaches in the sport’s history) doesn’t back down. She replenishes the team’s talent year in, year out. There’s a reason this team’s made nine straight Final Fours and won seven of the last eight national championships. Amonte Hiller knows how to recruit and how to coach women’s lacrosse. Don’t expect this to be a down year for Northwestern. People may underestimate this team now, but don’t be surprised if they’re in the championship conversation when the season ends.

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