Breaking Down Northwestern’s Path to a Final Four
Last season was an anomaly for Northwestern women’s lacrosse. For the first time in what feels like forever (okay, it was 11 years) the Wildcats fell short of the final four. This year, Kelly Amonte Hiller’s squad looks to return to the Final Four, and, all things considered, the ‘Cats are looking pretty good to do so right about now:
Northwestern successfully avoided Maryland and USC, the two remaining unbeaten teams in Division I lacrosse, and has a group of very beatable teams standing between them and Talon Energy Stadium in Chester. (Personally, I’m really hoping that the entire stadium is actually powered by and IronMan style talon, but I guess we’ll have to wait and see).
First up for Northwestern is Louisville, a team that the ‘Cats were defeated by at the beginning of March. In that game, a 10-4 win for the Cardinals, Northwestern gave up a back-breaking 4-0 run to close out the first half. That run turned a 2-1 lead into a 5-2 deficit, a hole the ‘Cats couldn’t quite climb out of. However, that Northwestern team was very different from this one, and it’s tough to put a lot of stock into that result. Louisville is a good team, yes, but so is Northwestern. The Cardinals finished the season 12-5, but have lost their last 4 games (albeit to 4 NCAA Tournament teams). This one feels like a pretty fair fight, with maybe a slight edge going Northwestern’s way given the run of form for both sides.
Should Northwestern beat Louisville, the ‘Cats will take on 6th-seeded Notre Dame in South Bend are Sunday. The two teams met on April 10th, and Northwestern’s 17-12 win represented a bit of a turning point on the season for the ‘Cats. Selena Lasota scored 5 times, and if Northwestern is to knock off the Irish once again, Lasota will be crucial. Notre Dame’s Cortney Fortunato is an impressive player, who could really hurt Northwestern’s defense. In the last matchup, she found the back of the net 5 times, and assisted on 2 more goals. While Northwestern won the first meeting, Notre Dame’s national ranking certainly makes them a side to watch out for. As with Louisville, all things considered, this feels like a bit of a toss-up, with Notre Dame possessing a touch more overall talent, but Northwestern with the advantage of defeating the Irish once already this year.
If the Wildcats can get past the Fighting Irish, there’s a pretty good chance that it will be anther familiar foe standing between them and a return trip to the Final Four. North Carolina is the number 3 overall seed in the tournament, and heads up the bracket above Northwestern. The Tar Heels are joined by their Tobacco Road rivals Duke as well as the Greyhounds of Loyola (MD), who were champions of the Patriot League. Credit to Loyola for a stellar season, but it’s tough to see the Greyhounds advancing to the quarterfinals and potentially facing Northwestern. Instead, it will most likely be either UNC or Duke, both teams Northwestern faced this year. Northwestern opened their season with an 11-8 win over Duke. The Blue Devils steadily dropped down the national rankings after that meeting, but are a dangerous team, led by Kyra Harney and her 46 goals. If Northwestern and Duke face off, it’ll be another even battle, with both sides pegging themselves for a win. Should the Blue Devils fall to the Tar Heels, then Northwestern will get to run back one of the more exciting matches this year, their 9-8 overtime loss to North Carolina.
When the two teams met earlier this year on the shores of Lake Michigan, Selena Lasota scored with 5 seconds remaining in regulation to force overtime. However, once there, the Heels got a goal from Aly Messinger to walk away winners. Carolina lost just twice this season, one goal defeats to Maryland and Florida, the two teams that top the seed lines for the NCAA. North Carolina is a very talented team, and would surely be the favorites over Northwestern in the quarterfinals. However, the Wildcats have shown that they can play with the Tar Heels, and that would certainly be a fascinating game.
All things considered, Northwestern should feel confident heading into the NCAA Tournament. In order to return to the Final Four, Northwestern will only be asked to beat teams that they have either beaten, or shown that they can play with. It’ll certainly be a fun run for Kelly Amonte Hiller’s bunch, and WNUR Sports will be there every step of the way, starting with coverage of the first and second rounds from South Bend this weekend.