By Amit Mallik
Welcome. If you’re reading this headline and have some questions, bear with me. If you know me, and know the wackiness that is about to ensue, by all means, scroll down and get on with it.
A brief introduction. I’m a senior at Northwestern and have been with WNUR Sports for most of the way while helping out NU Athletics in the communications office. I’ve watched a lot of Northwestern sports. And before I graduate, I wanted to write about some of the things I’ve seen and lessons I’ve learned from my four years to try and make sense of it all.
So in the next six or seven weeks, I want to look back and remember what a ride it’s been. I’m being a little selfish, but I hope that for many Northwestern fans, my musings might be interesting or entertaining.
I’m not here to dish out the dirt on any “inside” stuff I’ve seen. Not that I have any dirt to start with. However, I do think I’ve had a unique perspective in covering/following the NU teams for four years, and not just the teams we all know about. Hopefully I can try to put some pieces together from everything I’ve seen and offer up something fun.
My last note of this introduction is that I would love some reader feedback. I don’t think there would be enough interest for a mailbag, but if you have any questions related to Northwestern sports that you think I might be willing (key word) to answer, send them my way at firstname.lastname@example.org. Alright, enough housekeeping, let’s get weird.
The weather has taken away some of Northwestern’s greatest chances at statement wins.
Well, that’s a doozy of a statement. Let me explain. First of all, weather is entirely unpredictable in sports. I don’t mean that we can’t know it; we have an entire science dedicated to figuring it out. I mean that, to know how weather is going to impact a sporting event, and the outcome of a contest is totally impossible. That being said, I think we can accept that weather does play a role in many games, and can often swing an outcome towards one team. Think about kicking with the wind in a football game, or a ‘cold weather football team,’ or a quarterback who in general passes better indoors than out.
You get where I’m going. No, I’m not here to say that if the 2018 Big Ten Football Championship was played outdoors, Northwestern could have won because Ohio State would have been nerfed off of turf. Maybe, but we all watched that game. I don’t think the location of the game was enough to swing the margins in Northwestern’s favor. I am, however, going to point out one instance where the weather may have in fact, helped the Wildcats in a big game.
The rain in usually-dry San Diego during the Holiday Bowl helped Northwestern charge back for a huge comeback over Utah. The ‘Cats turned over the Utes four times in a wild third quarter. Did Northwestern benefit from playing in the rain where Utah did not? You can make a decent case that Northwestern was more prepared for a slick game:
I’m not saying that if it didn’t rain in the second half in the Holiday Bowl, Northwestern would have lost. The Wildcats did take advantage of the conditions available, and might not have had such fortunate turnover luck without some San Diego showers.
My point, however, is that some of Northwestern’s other programs have been on the other end of this weather phenomenon. I’ve got two BIG ones in my mind, but here are two honorable mentions.
Men’s Tennis in 2016
Arvid Swan built a powerhouse fueled by a big three as good as anyone else in the country: Konrad Zieba, Sam Shropshire and Strong Kirchheimer. The Wildcats hosted the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament in 2016 and were ranked No. 14, to give you an indication of how talented they were.
They took care of Valpo in the first round, 4-1, although the match was a little closer than the scoreline. And then, facing No. 29 Stanford in the second round, they lost, at home in a shocker, 4-3. Bizzare. The ‘Cats even won the doubles point despite losing at No. 3 doubles when Mihir Kumar, along with Alp Horoz, was bested by his brother Sameer despite having been 20-3 as a duo all season. How did Northwestern go on to lose four out of six singles matches at home with a point in hand?
Northwestern played the second round match outdoors, for only its second match of the season at the Vandy Christie Tennis Center, when the majority of its matches and practices take place indoors at the Combe Tennis Center.
You know who probably played outdoors all season long? That’s right. Stanford. We’re giving the Cardinal an honorable mention for my conspiracy theory, but this was the high-water mark of the ongoing Arvid Swan era at Northwestern. It’s not often you get to host a regional, and NU came away empty-handed.
Baseball in 2017
All Northwestern baseball fans remember the improbable run at the Big Ten Tournament at Bloomington in 2017. The Wildcats, who started the season 6-18, went 13-11 in Big Ten play, made the conference tournament for the first time in seven years as the No. 7 seed, and stormed all the way to the final before falling short against Iowa. The ‘Cats were one game away from the program’s first NCAA Tournament berth since 1957.
It was a memorable run, but the ‘Cats still got the short end of the stick thanks to a hitter-friendly park, lots of wind and lots of rain in Bloomington. Usually, the Big Ten holds its conference tournament in Omaha, Nebraska at the TD Ameritrade Park, also the home of the iconic college World Series. Not in 2017. For one year only, the conference decided to play at Bart Kaufman Field at Indiana.
With much shorter dimensions than in Omaha, it didn’t help that on day one of the tournament, the wind was blowing strongly out to right. Northwestern took advantage with home runs from Connor Lind (an opposite field home run, the third of his career) and Alex Erro to down the No. 2 seed Michigan, 6-4. The only problem was that it rained all morning to delay start times, and only three games were played instead of four, with the games being played taking longer than usual due to more runs on the smaller field.
The next morning, more rain came to Bloomington, and just three games were played again, partially because of a 4.5-hour, 13-inning lidlifter between Indiana and Michigan. So the ‘Cats didn’t play again until Friday, and after they beat Minnesota, they should have had the opportunity to advance out of the semifinals against Maryland on Saturday.
Instead, because of the backlog of games, only three were played on Saturday, and since Northwestern lost to Maryland 7-5, they had to play the semifinal of the tournament on Sunday, the same day of the Championship game! Northwestern wound up beating the Terps, 6-5, but ran out of gas and had no pitching left to face a hot Iowa team that pulled away to win 13-4.
This one is pretty out there, but imagine if Northwestern had more pitching and rest to face Iowa on Sunday. Maybe the ‘Cats never would have made it to Sunday if the weather was fine on Wednesday and Thursday in Bloomington. Maybe Northwestern would have had a better shot at its first NCAA Tournament Bid since 1957.
Lacrosse in 2019
This just happened this month. Since Maryland joined the Big Ten in 2015, their women’s lacrosse team has not lost a conference game. They’ve won two national championships in the last four years and been to the semifinals every year. They’re the most dominant program in lacrosse since… well Northwestern in the late 2000s.
And in 2019, Northwestern had its best chance to knock off the Terps in quite some time, hosting Maryland with with enough talent to pull off the win. This year’s Wildcat team has been the best iteration under superstar Selena Lasota, and it went into the clash fully believing it could do the job.
And the ‘Cats looked the part at Martin Stadium, trading blows with Maryland all night. The game was tied 7-7 at half and then 12-12 with 12:28 left to play in the ballgame. The rain had started to come down in Evanston, but eventually lightning struck and the game was forced into a delay.
Normally, they would try to wait the rain out, but there was no sign of a let-up. And the alternative would be that the two teams restarted the entire game the next day, erasing the previous 47 minutes of action. But Northwestern, lucky as can be, had a beautiful $270 million dollar facility in its back pocket, and the game moved indoors. How many other places could this have happened at?
After a 30-minute-ish delay, the game restarted on Wilson Field and Maryland had all the momentum, scoring five out of the last six goals and making Northwestern look completely pedestrian. It could have gone down differently — Selena Lasota missed just wide trailing at 15-13 — but it was night and day from how the game had gone outdoors.
Did playing the game indoors mean Maryland had an advantage? I’m not sure. But did the delay and removal of the elements sap Northwestern of its momentum and potential advantage? I’m willing to say yes. The good news for Kelly Amonte Hiller’s team? They can play themselves into another matchup with Maryland in the Big Ten Tournament final, and are still poised to go deep into this year’s NCAA Tournament.
Women’s Soccer in 2017
This one is crazy to me. The semifinal and final rounds of the the Big Ten tournament are held at Grand Park in Westfield, Indiana, which is not on a Big Ten campus. The Wildcats advanced to the final in 2017 against perennial powerhouse Penn State, a program that had won a national championship in 2015 and nine Big Ten regular season titles since head coach Erica Dambach took over in 2007. The Nittany Lions won every Big Ten regular season title from 1998 to 2012.
Northwestern was turning into a power in its own right, and had won a share of the Big Ten regular season title in 2016, advanced to the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 later that year and finished second in the conference in 2017 en-route to a run to the title game.
The Wildcats had already lost 3-0 that season to Penn State in Pennsylvania, and had their work cut out for them against a team that would dominate the possession and chances.
On that November Sunday, however, a midwestern storm rolled through Indianapolis and doused the Grand Park field with water, slowing the pitch down and in turn, Penn State’s attack. The ball rolled slowly, and the speed of the game stagnated on a field that started to hold more water than it could accommodate.
The conditions were playing into Northwestern’s favor, and then Nia Harris landed the ultimate sucker punch with a counterattacking goal to give the ‘Cats an unthinkable 1-0 lead. Surely Penn State would struggle to equalize on a sloppy field against a vaunted ‘Cats defense. Up to this point, Northwestern had only lost one game in the three years it had Kayla Sharples and Hannah Davison when it scored the first goal (a crazy 2-1 loss to Cincinnati led by Neil Stafford and his counterpressing tactics).
Even if Penn State could manage to tie it up, Northwestern could always hold on for a shootout, where it had Lauren Clem, penalty stopper extraordinaire, who would go on that season to singlehandedly save the Wildcats’ bacon in a memorable shootout win over Butler in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Instead, the moment after Nia Harris scored, the game entered a 2 hour and 26 minute rain delay, and then resumed inside, on a slightly smaller turf field with a quick surface and no ‘conditions’. Did Maryland lacrosse have an advantage indoors? Probably not. Did Penn State soccer have an advantage indoors? Absolutely. The change of venue uprooted the entire game, and the Nittany Lions were able to pull off a comeback for the ages, scoring twice in the final 19 minutes to win the game 2-1.
What’s worse for the Wildcats is that a win, or even a draw after 110 minutes, would have boosted their RPI enough to give them a better draw in the NCAA Tournament. They were able to host the first round yes, but their second round matchup was against No. 1 seed UCLA, and an inspired defensive performance still couldn’t get them over the hump. The difference between a “8” seed and a 6 or 5 isn’t negligible here!
Northwestern got its revenge in 2018 with a 1-0 win over Penn State in Evanston, but it wasn’t able to leverage that result into another deep run. The Wildcats missed the Big Ten tournament due to some injuries and shock results down the stretch and could not prevail on the road against a solid North Carolina State team in the NCAA Tournament first round.
That brings me to a few closing thoughts. First, you never know when your window is your window. Seasons were on the line here and and for three out of the four teams, they have yet to get back to the summit they reached. Regardless of how much a factor the weather was, the Wildcats still had a chance to go out and win, and I bet none of the student-athletes involved would have blamed the weather. Great teams find ways to win and adapt. There have been some great Northwestern teams, these examples included, but Maryland lacrosse and Penn State soccer are historically special because of their ability to come out on the right side of famous matchups.
Second, in a shameless plug, I’d like to add that for lacrosse and soccer, when the game went indoors, WNUR Sports was the only outlet broadcasting the game because television couldn’t make the shift. Student Radio matters!
Alright, that’s enough rambling from me. Send in your hot takes, comments and questions, and be on the look out for me from me soon.