When Kelly Amonte Hiller was hired by Northwestern in 2002, the Wildcats–who started Division 1 womens’ lacrosse play in 1982–had never won a national championship. Hiller, a two-time NCAA Player of the Year at Maryland, immediately turned the NU program around, making the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 2004.
The next season, she led the Wildcats to their first ever national title, which started a string of five championships in a row. Northwestern took a break in 2010, losing in the title game, but won in 2011 and 2012 before falling in the semifinals in 2013 and 2014. That brings up this past season.
Losing a bunch of key starters, Amonte Hiller knew the 2015 campaign would be a rough one, for Northwestern standards. But, with a solid recruiting class, headlined by freshmen sensation Selena Lasota, there was no reason to think the Wildcats would fail to make the Final Four for the first time since the 2004 season. However, that’s exactly what happened.
The season started well with back-to-back wins over USC and Virginia but a blowout loss to the Duke back on February 19 demonstrated the youth and inexperience that filled the Wildcats’ roster. A win over Marquette allayed some fears, which were felt anew with a tough, 12-11 loss to North Carolina that dropped NU’s record to 3-2 on the young season. As a reminder, from 2005-2012, NU didn’t lose more than two games in any season.
Going on to win six of their next seven games, the Wildcats looked more and more like the perennial national power they have proven to be in Amonte Hiller’s tenure in Evanston. Yet, an uneven finish to the season, thanks to losses to Stony Brook and Penn State (twice, with the second coming in the Big Ten tournament), made Northwestern limp into the NCAA Tournament with a less-than-convincing 12-6 record.
As the hosts of a NCAA regional, NU took care of its home field in beating Louisville and Notre Dame–both teams the Wildcats won against in the regular season. But, they then had to travel to College Park, Maryland to take on the No. 1 Terrapins. That game wasn’t much of a contest, as defending champion Maryland–which would go on to win the title this year–trounced the young Wildcats 17-5 in a game that wasn’t even that close. Just like that, NU’s decade-long Final Four streak was over.
Even with the disappointing finish to the season, there were positives abound for Amonte Hiller’s squad. Lasota–the Big Ten Freshman of the Year–scored a stunning team-high 69 goals and established herself as one of the top scorers in the entire country. Junior Kaleigh Craig returned from an injury-riddled 2014 season to score 46 times while sophomore Sheila Nesselbush and freshman Corinne Wessels each posted 30+ points. All four of those key players will be back for 2015-16.
Kara Mupo, though, NU’s third-leading scorer, will graduate this June and the Wildcats will miss her constant offensive presence. The good thing for Northwestern is that out of the team’s key contributors, only Mupo, midfielder Jess Carroll and goalkeeper Bridget Bianco are seniors. That leaves the cupboard relatively full for NU going forward.
The 2014-15 season may have been a major setback for the Wildcats in terms of success, especially considering just how dominant they have been for over 10 years. However, sometimes teams have to take a step backwards in order to move into the future with promise. With all of their freshmen and underclassmen, that’s exactly what it appears Northwestern has done.