LAX Season Recap: 4 Ups, 3 Downs

By Jack Lido

This season, Northwestern lacrosse again escaped the wrath of February and March in Evanston inside Ryan Fieldhouse. Coming off a Big Ten Tournament Championship and a Final Four appearance in 2019, the No. 3 Wildcats looked ready to make another deep run. But as the world adapted to the realities of COVID-19, the dreams of that run and sunny games at Martin Stadium evaporated.

That doesn’t mean we can’t look back at the shortened season, and learn from the brief, bumpy ride of 2020. The Wildcats hi-fived in the postgame locker room four times, and sank their heads three times. To mirror their record, here are four “ups” and three “downs” from Northwestern’s 2020 season.

Up – Without Selena Lasota, the offense still cooked early in the season.

For Kelly Amonte Hiller’s team, goal scoring is a staple. But without the program’s all-time leading scorer, pundits and fans were rightfully worried about Northwestern’s scoring ceiling. After the first two games, that ceiling was on the floor in pieces. Thirty goals in the season opener against Detroit Mercy was the most ever by an Amonte Hiller coached team. The ‘Cats proved they could do it against a more formidable opponent after they put 24 on the scoreboard against Duke in Durham, who finished 6-3 with all three losses coming against top-15 teams. 

Brennan Dwyer was the straw that stirred the drink, starting an absurd number of Wildcat possessions and leading the Big Ten with 9.86 draw controls per game. The Wildcats spread the ball around well throughout the season; while Lasota scored 23% of the team’s 366 goals in 2019, no one player scored more than 20% of the team’s 151 goals in 2020. The preseason questions about Northwestern’s offense were answered. There are more specific aspects of the offense to recognize, but first, we need to acknowledge how the team failed to put up points in important games.

Down – Scoring slowed in critical contests against Notre Dame and Syracuse.

Perhaps the most entertaining part of NCAA lacrosse is the early, non-stop, non-conference action. There’s nothing like watching bubbling rivalries year after year, and Kelly Amonte Hiller always gives fans a show in Evanston. However, Northwestern’s offense came out flat in two of these matchups, starting with a nail-biter against Notre Dame, then a disappointment against Syracuse. Make no mistake, these were two of the best teams in the country; at season’s end, Notre Dame was ranked No. 2, and Syracuse No. 4 in the Inside Lacrosse Poll. But Northwestern was there first (it was ranked No. 3 in the week one poll), and, with fewer mistakes, could have stayed there. Northwestern lost the turnover battle in each of these losses, and got lackluster performances from their offensive leaders. 

Lindsay McKone provided everything Northwestern needed nearly the entire season, but she was shut down against Notre Dame, scoring three points (zero goals), tied for a season low. In that game, Lauren Gilbert contributed only two points (zero assists), also tied for a season low. When Syracuse came to town a week later, the Orange neutralized Izzy Scane, Northwestern’s best attacker, from the start. Scane struggled to create her own offense and scored zero goals for just the second time in her career. The rest of the offense sputtered, scoring a Ryan Fieldhouse-Era low 11 goals. 

Up – Most of the time, the Three Headed Monster was just that.

Lindsay McKone, Lauren Gilbert, Izzy Scane. Through 2018, they had 15, three, and zero collegiate goals respectively. All three broke out in 2019, and earned preseason Tewaaraton watch list nods in 2020. So would they come back even stronger? Yes, yes and yes. Scane and Gilbert were the only teammates in power-5 lacrosse to each score more than 3.5 goals per game (Scane finished T-8th in the nation with 4.14, Gilbert T-25th with 3.57). McKone did her work from behind the net, scoring and passing efficiently, with 18 goals and 14 assists.

Northwestern’s scoring offense led the country in 2020, at 21.57 goals per game. Had those numbers held, Northwestern would have crushed the NCAA single-season record of 18.45 GPG, set by Jacksonville in 2019. Even if Northwestern had scored zero goals against Detroit Mercy (yes, instead of 30, ZERO), the Wildcats would still have scored 17.28 goals per game, the ninth highest number in NCAA history.  If these three are back in 2021, the rest of the country should be on notice.

Down – Scoring defense was still a problem.

Northwestern was a Final Four team in 2019, with only one deficiency: scoring defense, which ranked 83rd in the country. In the first seven games of 2020, it got worse, ranking 100th in the country. Perhaps blame falls on the loss of senior leaders Kim Harker and Mallory Weiss. Maybe it was the departure of Tim McCormack, who oversaw the Northwestern defense and goalkeepers in his six years as a Wildcat assistant. Or, simply, the Wildcats faced a bevy of top teams, All-Americans, and even a couple of potential Tewaaraton winners. If Northwestern wants to go back to the promised land, the defense has to tighten up. 

2019’s Final Four squad may have been carried by offense, but in a win-or-go-home scenario, defense is what shines. Northwestern held Notre Dame to ten goals in the second round of the 2019 NCAA Tournament. A round later, they held Syracuse to 14. This year, they gave up 17 to the Irish and 16 to the Orange. Yes, the Wildcats are known for their offense, but even a great offense can’t always score more than 20 goals, which is how many they gave up in the win against Duke. Solidifying the defense will take Northwestern to another level.

Up – Breakout from Palermo, with potential for more.

Although Northwestern’s defense left a lot to be desired, there was no one on the team who stepped up more than Ally Palermo. While Dwyer, Scane, Gilbert and McKone deserve lots of credit, Palermo was quietly incredible. The junior was acknowledged at short season’s end when she was named an Inside Lacrosse First Team All-American, the first Wildcat defender to earn that honor since Christy Finch in 2008. She took players out of the game with some of the strongest woman-on-woman defense in the country. Always liable to end a possession, she led the team with eight caused turnovers and 18 ground balls. Palermo shines most in the transition game, where she fluidly finds her woman and uses her speed and agility to help on defense. Palermo took a huge step from a speedster to a huge problem for opposing offenses. 

In addition to Palermo, we also may have seen the future breakouts in this year’s first-year class. Seven first-years scored goals in the team’s seven games. After extended playing time against Detroit Mercy, Dylan Amonte picked up the offense almost immediately (surprise, surprise), and played in four more games during the season. Jane Hansen led all Northwestern first-years in scoring after a five game streak of goals. Erin Coykendall wears Lasota’s number 2, but looks more like McKone with her quickness and scoring ability behind the cage. Eve Hritzuk, Maddy Balter, Kiera Shanley, Hunter Chadwick, Katie Shanley and Johanna Kingsfield were all not as highly recruited, but proved worthy of playing on Kelly Amonte Hiller’s team as first-years, which is no small task.

Down – Can’t stop the star.

Any coach in any sport has probably uttered the phrase “don’t let (Player X) beat us.” In other words, they want their team to focus its attention on one particular player, and give that star player’s teammates the chance. If Amonte Hiller is going to schedule tough opponents, chances are, Northwestern is going to face some superstars. 

Northwestern did just that, and had a lot of trouble with one in particular, Emily Hawryschuk. Northwestern’s inability to shut her down – of course combined with plenty of other mistakes – cost the Wildcats against Syracuse. Nothing could stop Hawryschuk, who scored six goals, which made the difference in an 11-16 final. Had Hawryschuk scored zero goals, that doesn’t guarantee Northwestern would win that pivotal game, but with the 2020 Tewaaraton favorite coming back for one more year, Northwestern will likely need to go through the Orange in 2021. Not to mention the superstars Northwestern is likely to face next season as well, like Notre Dame’s Maddie Howe, Boston College’s Charlotte North and UNC’s Jamie Ortega.

Up – The Wildcats proved that they can compete with the best.

Northwestern’s season came to an early end, but its last game was worthy of final-contest status for any season. Yes, it ended in defeat, but it proved that Northwestern, only ranked sixth at the time, could compete with the best team in the nation. No. 1 North Carolina had beaten every opponent by six or more goals, with an average scoring margin of 11.3. The Heels didn’t come to Evanston expecting to squash Northwestern, but no one expected the Wildcats to turn the game into a possible Final Four preview (unfortunately, in 2021). 

Despite the loss, Northwestern did almost everything Amonte Hiller could ask for. Even though it lost the turnover battle, NU only gave the ball up 11 times, beating its season average up until that point, 14.3. The third-best scorer in the nation – North Carolina’s superstar – Jamie Ortega, was held to just two goals. Northwestern’s offense didn’t falter this time, in fact, it was sizzling hot, led by Izzy Scane’s eight goal effort. After starting the game down 4-0, Northwestern led or tied UNC for 15:03, and was within a goal of the nation’s top team in the final minutes. Yes, it was a loss, but it showed the world that Northwestern is right where it belongs in Final Four conversations. Unfortunately, they will remain just that, conversations.