A few months ago, I wrote an article looking ahead at Northwestern’s potential for the upcoming season, but now that the schedule is out, we can get an even better idea of what’s to come. To be clear, there’s been no media availability or preseason games open to the media, so all I’ve got to go on is last season’s performance and the team’s incoming recruiting class, which was ranked eighth in the nation. With that said, here’s what’s in store for the upcoming season.
As always, the Wildcats open their season with away games (snow is often still on the ground in Evanston when the season starts in February). Northwestern opens the season at Duke (2/7), then plays Virginia in Atlanta for the second straight year (2/13). After that, they visit two ACC foes in Syracuse (2/28) and Louisville (3/3).
It’s definitely not an easy stretch for Northwestern to start the season. Syracuse, Duke and UVA all ended last season ranked above number nine Northwestern, at 3, 5 and 8, respectively. Last season, the ‘Cats lost to Duke and won close games against the other three opponents on their season-opening road trip.
This start will be particularly challenging for the team’s freshman, who will have to adjust to college play against the toughest teams in the country. The best team the ‘Cats faced in preseason was Notre Dame, who finished last season ranked 11th. The gap between the top ten schools and the rest of the ranked programs is huge in women’s lacrosse, arguably larger than in any other sport. That means playing Syracuse and Duke will be a tougher task for this team than fall ball was.
After the four-game road trip, the ‘Cats come home for games against Marquette (3/8), Stony Brook (3/12), North Carolina (3/20) and Colorado (3/24). Those home games will be the first games played in the newly renovated Lanny & Sharon Martin Stadium.
This homestand is significantly easier for the ‘Cats than their season-opening road swing. Marquette and Colorado should give the team two easy wins, but North Carolina and Stony Brook are a different story. Stony Brook took off last year, stunning the ‘Cats on their way to an 18-1 record, and North Carolina beat Northwestern by just one goal. It’s hard to say what to expect from those two games, especially because Stony Brook is new to the ranks of elite women’s lacrosse, but winning at least one is important.
Next up, trips to Maryland (3/31) and Penn (4/3). Northwestern should beat Penn, but it’s surely not a guarantee, especially after an overtime win against the Quakers last year. Maryland, of course, is another story. Northwestern hasn’t beaten the Terps since 2012, and that losing streak should continue this year. Maryland continues to dominate not only Northwestern, but women’s lacrosse. Taylor Cummings won the Tewaarton (lacrosse’s version of the Heisman Trophy) for the second year in a row, and the team has five Inside Lacrosse Preseason All-Americans, while Northwestern has just two. If anyone can compete with Maryland, it’s going to be UNC or Syracuse, not the young Wildcats.
After Penn, the Wildcats return to Evanston for their second (and final) homestand of the year, with games against Michigan (4/7), Notre Dame (4/10), USC (4/15) and Rutgers (4/17). All four of those should be wins, but Notre Dame and USC gave Northwestern tough games last year and could do the same in 2016. While the Irish and Trojans are strong opponents, last year’s close games were largely due to slow play by Northwestern, not strong play by the opposition. Michigan and Rutgers, on the other hand, should be easy conference wins.
Finally, the ‘Cats go to Penn State (4/23) and Ohio State (4/29). Northwestern needs to beat both of these teams, but that’s easier said than done. Northwestern should have beaten Penn State last year, but were unable to get past the Nittany Lions in either of their two meetings, mostly, again, due to poor play by Northwestern. I think the possibility of revenge will be enough to carry Northwestern past Penn State this year. Ohio State beat Maryland last year, and they have the potential to be really good. If the Buckeyes play up to their potential, Northwestern could have its hands full on April 29th.
Overall, Northwestern has a pretty difficult schedule. They’ve got easy wins over Marquette, Colorado, Michigan and Rutgers. Then they’ve got what should be wins over Louisville, Penn, Notre Dame, USC, and Ohio State. They’ll play must-win games that are definitely within reach against Stony Brook and Penn State, but Northwestern’s other five games (Duke Virginia, Syracuse, North Carolina, and Maryland) will determine how good these ‘Cats are. If NU wins three of those five, they should get good enough seeding in the NCAA tournament to get back to the final four.
I think Northwestern will drop a few games they should win (likely one or two in that second group and one or both of Penn State and Stony Brook). I also don’t think they’ll be able to get three wins from the final group. My guess for their final record: 11-5, matching last year’s regular-season record.