It may be fall, but that doesn’t mean we’ve forgotten about Northwestern lacrosse. WNUR’s Tara Wendell breaks down the many changes (both to the Wildcats’ roster and the sport in general) NU must endure to return to the Final Four in 2016.

Northwestern lacrosse fell out of the Final Four for the first time in 10 years last season. It was the end of an era, signifying that women’s lacrosse has become big enough to break dynasties with more than just a few competitive programs jockeying for the top spot.

Just because Northwestern wasn’t able to capture another Final Four spot last year doesn’t mean the Wildcats have been wiped off the map. On the contrary, expect a better season from the team this year than last.

The Wildcats welcome the No. 8 recruiting class in the country, and the class before them, now sophomores, was the No. 1 class in the nation. Those two groups will combine to give the Wildcats a deep roster with a lot of skill, and a little more support than it had last year.

The strength of players like Shelby Fredericks, Shannon Nesselbush, Selena Lasota and Corrine Wessels will combine with the incoming players–two members of this summer’s silver medal-winning USA U-19 Women’s Lacrosse World Cup Team (Claire Quinn and Mallory Weisse), a member of the gold medal-winning Canada U-19 Women’s Lacrosse World Cup Team (Danita Stroup) and a number of All-Americans–to really give Northwestern some depth. Last year, the Wildcats’ key players lacked the support of a deep roster with top-5 talent; this year, they’ll have that needed depth.

Another big change we’ll see this year is the departure of three-year starter Bridget Bianco. Bianco ended her career at Northwestern with an impressive .426 save percentage. Last season, however, was a challenge for her. Bianco’s save percentage dropped from .455 in her junior season to .392 in her senior campaign. Those numbers simply couldn’t back up Northwestern’s Final Four hopes.

This year, Northwestern’s new starting goalie is likely to be freshman Mallory Weisse. Weisse is no stranger to a big stage or pressure–she captained the US U-19 World Cup team. Expect her to struggle a little with the pace of the college game, but improve quickly and serve Northwestern well in the cage.

Then, there are the changes to lacrosse that will affect Northwestern. There are two major rule changes to pay attention to. Firstly, a possession clock has been established. The clock will not be in place till 2017, but expect to see its effects this season as teams prepare for it. In simplified form, the possession clock allows teams 90 seconds from the time they gain possession of the ball to take an on-target shot.

Teams can no longer stall as 90 seconds is a short period of time for the ball to get all the way from the goalie to the opposite goal, especially if teams play good transition defense, which is made even more important by this rule. Northwestern definitely slows down the game when it can, and has been the victim of a stall in the past (particularly by Maryland). Teams will still use the stall this year, but likely less so, speeding up the overall game, and Northwestern’s style of play.

The other big change that will also speed up the game is self-starts. In past years, all players are required to stand still on a foul, awaiting the referee’s whistle to restart play. Now, the rule is similar to field hockey or soccer–players who are to receive the ball after a foul may pick up the ball if it is nearby (that distance has yet to be defined), must take a moment to settle and then begin play, by running or passing, without awaiting a whistle.

This all sounds very ambiguous, because it is, and because the NCAA and U.S. Lacrosse will hand down rule clarifications as necessary. But all that this means is players must be more alert during the game–they can’t spend the break fouls once providing looking around to find their girl, and they also can’t get caught flat-footed as the opposite team runs off with the ball. It also speeds up the game, with shorter stops for the upwards of 40 fouls normally called in one contest.

That brings us to predictions–what will Northwestern be able to make happen this year? It’s definitely not out of question for the Wildcats to get back to the final four, but it’s not a given. Last year’s new players are more mature, and could make an even stronger showing than last year. Add that to a strong freshman class which should be able to contribute, and Northwestern could have a recipe for success. If the freshman aren’t able to contribute too well though, the team may flounder. NU’s lacrosse’s future is hazy, and the team definitely shouldn’t be counted out this year, but it won’t be an easy road to the Final Four.

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