Season Preview: Lacrosse
By Zach Koons
It’s no secret that the Northwestern women’s lacrosse program is one of the most well-respected teams in the sport of collegiate lacrosse. Led by all-time great Kelly Amonte Hiller, the team was able to win an astounding seven national championships over the course of eight years from 2005-2012.
Unfortunately, not everything went according to plan after a 9-6 loss at the hands of arch-rival Maryland in the 2014 Final Four. The ‘Cats stumbled year in and year out in the NCAA Tournament and were shut out of the Final Four for the next four seasons.
But in 2019, Northwestern (16-5, 5-1 Big Ten) finally got over the proverbial four-year bump in the road. The year was capped off by a Final Four berth and the celebration of Tewaaraton finalist Selena Lasota.
The Wildcats challenged themselves once again, playing nearly every one of the top 10 teams in teams in the nation, including #1 Boston College, #3 North Carolina, and eventual national champion Maryland on three separate occasions.
The season featured breakout individual performances from Lasota, who became Northwestern’s all-time leading goal scorer, and Mallory Weisse, who earned the starting goalkeeping position in her senior season. Attacker Lauren Gilbert took a massive leap in her sophomore campaign and Izzy Scane burst onto the collegiate lacrosse scene, winning a unanimous Big Ten Freshman of the Year award.
The year certainly wasn’t without its trials and tribulations. Strong contributors Jill Girardi and Ally Palermo went down with season-ending injuries. The ‘Cats lost a brutal overtime thriller on the road at Syracuse early in the year that could’ve boosted confidence.
But perhaps the game that was most indicative of how Northwestern’s season went in 2019 was an April 11 contest against rival Maryland. The ‘Cats stuck with the Terps for the first 45 minutes of play behind a strong performance from Lasota. However, due to a torrential thunderstorm, the game was moved into Ryan Fieldhouse in a tie game at the 12:28 mark of the second half. On the restart, Maryland outpaced the Wildcats, eventually grabbing a pivotal 17-13 win. Even though Northwestern bested the Terps in the Big Ten Championship Game, Maryland got the last laugh in the Final Four.
On that night in April, Northwestern showed that it was capable of playing with the best programs in the country again but that maybe they hadn’t fully gotten back to championship form.
As the 2020 season approaches, Northwestern has plenty of known talents, particularly on attack. Still, some unknowns exist for Kelly Amonte Hiller and the Wildcats that will need to be addressed if the team wants to make a push for a national championship.
Here’s the breakdown:
For the last five seasons, Northwestern relied on one of the greatest attackers in the history of women’s lacrosse. Selena Lasota became the leading goal scorer in school history, scoring 287 career goals, and essentially put the Northwestern attack on her back in 2019, scoring 85 goals and 104 points in just 20 games. In addition to her impressive rankings in the Big Ten, Lasota was honored nationally by being named a Tewaaraton finalist, placing her among the five best players in the country. But now Lasota has moved on to bigger and brighter things, the question becomes: how do you replace the best Wildcat goal-scorer ever?
While it may seem like a daunting task, if any team has the capability to do it, then it’s Northwestern. Even though Lasota led the way in both goals and points, the rest of the ‘Cats attack was nothing to scoff at. The team was among the best in the country offensively, leading the overall philosophy shift around how to play women’s lacrosse. Northwestern’s numbers back-up the eye test as they ranked third in goals per game (17.43), second in shot percentage (.500), fifth in draw controls (and 12th in free position percentage (.476).
When it came to individual play apart from Lasota, the Wildcats had three attackers with 65 points or more, all of whom will be returning for the 2020 season. That trio is led by sophomore Izzy Scane, the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year. Coming off of a 62 goal season, the sophomore from Michigan will need to step into the primary attacking role and build off of an astounding first season. If she does, being a Tewaaraton nominee isn’t out of the question.
The good news is that Scane won’t be forced to bear the burden of filling Lasota’s shoes on her own. Rather she’ll head the “committee” that Amonte Hiller has developed to replace the Northwestern great. Lauren Gilbert returns for her junior season after a breakout year in 2019 where she scored 52 goals and senior Lindsey McKone will return in a facilitator role for the ‘Cats after tallying 73 points last year. Liza Elder joins as a fifth-year, giving Northwestern a fearsome and experienced front.
Northwestern did lose two other senior contributors in attack that will also need to be replaced. Attacker Claire Quinn and midfielder Emily Stein combined for 42 goals last year, bringing depth to a potent offense. To fill the hole, the WIldcats will have to rely on increased midfield goal-scoring production, something that wasn’t really used in 2019. Amonte Hiller has never been afraid to expose talented freshmen to competitive Big Ten lacrosse, so it’s possible that first-year attackers Erin Coykendall (#22 Inside Lacrosse) and Dylan Amonte (#29 Inside Lacrosse), along with three other first-years, will be expected to play a crucial supporting role in the ‘Cats offense.
Player to Watch: Lindsey McKone
Simply put, McKone is the most important piece for the ‘Cats offense this year. She ran the attack from behind the cage in 2019 and will need to do so again in 2020 . As a junior she led Northwestern with 28 assists and without a player like Lasota, the Wildcats will need a savvy playmaker to set up easy goals for the rest of the attack. McKone needs to be the one to do that for Northwestern to make a deep postseason run.
The Making of the Midfield
If Northwestern’s attack is their best positional group, it’s only because of the support they get from an experienced midfield. Senior Megan Kinna returns after a decent 2019 where she amassed 28 points and a career-low in turnovers with just 14. However, it seems that Kinna hasn’t taken a gigantic step forward while at Northwestern. The ‘Cats need Kinna to not only put up her best season individually but also be a vocal leader for what’s going to be a young group. Kinna will be joined by junior Jill Girardi who returns from a season-ending injury in 2019. The Wildcats missed Girardi’s tenacity at times in 2019, especially for depth in the Final Four, and she should provide a boost, both offensively and defensively.
Past Girardi, things get dicey. The aforementioned Emily Stein graduated, as did midfielder turned defender Kim Harker, leaving the ‘Cats with players like Megan Gordon, Taylor Pinzone, Elle Hansen, Amanda Cramer and Allie Berkery who have all seen playing time, but typically in specialty roles. Three midfield positions seem to be set in stone, leaving two starting spots in the midfield that are likely to be filled by a few players. Elle Hansen should fill one of those spots after a strong summer alongside Amonte Hiller at the U19 World Championships. Hansen’s younger sister, Jane, also joins the program after being ranked as the #7 recruit by Inside Lacrosse and will definitely be a factor in the latter half of the year. The starting nod likely goes to Gordon at the beginning of the year, who started five games in 2019, until Jane Hansen gets comfortable at the collegiate level.
In the draw circle, breakout Brennan Dwyer returns for her junior season, which spells good news for Amonte Hiller. Anyone around the program would’ve told you that Dwyer was ready to make the leap and be one of the best in the country, but to actually see it in action was something special. In 2019, she totaled 181 draw controls, good enough for 8.62 per game (5th NCAA). Even though the numbers might be inflated from Northwestern’s overpowered offense, Dwyer is still the real deal. She’ll be backed up by 6’ 0” sophomore Greta Stahl, who gives the ‘Cats a different look from the 5’ 5” Dwyer.
Player to Watch: Jill Girardi
Girardi appeared in 16 games in 2019, forcing 12 turnovers and scoring 14 goals. She’s a defensive-minded midfielder, evident by her first season as a Wildcat, where she caused 22 turnovers. If Northwestern wants to maintain its historic attack, Girardi will need to stay healthy and provide her outstanding defense, in addition to an increased role in the offense.
Keeping up with the Copelands (and friends)
If there’s a weakness in this team, it’s the defense. That’s not to say that the defense is bad by any means, but in 2019 Northwestern got away with having the 83rd ranked scoring defense in the country. It helped that the offense was putting up over 17 goals per game, especially as the defensive unit lost one of its most important pieces in Ally Palermo. Kim Harker filled in solidly and Ivy Arlia backed up the Copeland trio well, but the group lacked experience. The goalkeeper position remained in flux throughout the season and wasn’t super consistent, despite a fantastic year from the since-graduated Mallory Weisse.
Now, with Harker and Nell Copeland gone, the defensive unit might not have the same depth but should have a solid core that can play well in the defensive third of the field. Twins Kate and Carson Copeland combined to cause 27 turnovers last year, and gained a year of experience defending against some of the best offenses to ever play lacrosse. Most importantly, Palermo will return from injury which not only helps give speed to the back line but also gives Northwestern an advantage in transition, thanks to Palermo’s quickness and ability to clear. Arlia and Carli Harpel will likely play valuable bench roles for the ‘Cats and Amonte Hiller has never shied away from converting midfielders into defenders as the year goes on. Back in Northwestern’s glory days, the team was known for its defense, so there’s little doubt that Amonte Hiller will have the Wildcat defense ready for 2020.
As for the goalkeeping position, all eyes will be on Julie Krupnick. There’s almost nothing more important than a strong keeper going into the postseason (see 2019 Tewaaraton winner Megan Taylor), and Krupnick will have to stay consistent throughout the year if the Wildcats want to make a push into the national championship game. She’s shown plenty of upside with games like a 16-save, jaw-dropping performance against Dartmouth last year or allowing just 11.77 goals per game in 2018. If she’s healthy, she’ll be a force to be reckoned with.
Player to Watch: Julie Krupnick
Julie Krupnick is arguably the single most important player on Northwestern’s squad this year. If she continues to improve, like she has the last two seasons, then the Wildcats will feel extremely good about their championship chances.
As far as most media members and coaches are concerned, it’s a five-team battle for the four spots in the Final Four. Maryland, fresh off a national title, graduated their two Tewaaraton finalists (midfielder Jen Giles and Tewaaraton winner and goalkeeper Megan Taylor) in addition to losing Caroline Steele in attack and Julia Braig in defense. Still, counting out the Terps legendary hear coach, Cathy Reese, would be a mistake and an impressive senior class looks poised to take the reins. North Carolina is the team with the most experience entering 2020, returning six All-Americans including junior goalkeeper Taylor Moreno and most importantly 100-point scorers Jamie Ortega and Katie Hoeg. Boston College looked to be decimated after graduating the dangerous trio of Dempsey Arsenault, Sam Appuzo, and Kenzie Kent but quickly rebounded by acquiring former Duke attacker Charlotte North, who scored 82 goals last year as a sophomore, in the transfer portal. Syracuse, the last team out of the Final Four in 2019, returns a talented young core, led by senior Emily Hawryschuk, who looks poised to be a Tewaaraton finalist in 2020.
In summary, the path to the 2020 Final Four in Baltimore isn’t any easier for Northwestern, and without a player like Lasota, it’ll be an uphill battle. That being said, the Wildcats, behind a strong attacking trio and Julie Krupnick’s best season at Northwestern, will find themselves back in the Final Four in 2020. At that point, it’s a toss-up and anyone around this program knows that Kelly Amonte Hiller will be hungry for another shot at a national championship.
Northwestern Final Record: 16-5, 2nd Big Ten, Final Four
Tewaarton Finalists: Emily Hawryschuk (Syracuse), Jamie Ortega (North Carolina), Charlotte North (Boston College), Kali Hartshorn (Maryland), Kelly Larkin (Navy)
Tewaaraton Winner: Jamie Ortega, North Carolina, Attack
Final Four: Maryland (1), North Carolina (2), Northwestern (3), Syracuse (4)National Championship Prediction: North Carolina over Maryland (15-13)