Nike/LM NCAA Preview: No. 5 Northwestern (Women)
Northwestern's 10-year streak of advancing to the final four was snapped in 2015 after an up-and-down season, failing to advance to the inaugural Big Ten championship as a preseason conference favorite.
It was clear Selena Lasota led the Wildcats as the Big Ten Freshman of the Year, finishing the season ranked fifth nationally in goals with 69 and first on her team with 78 points. She returns in 2016 more ready than ever coming off a gold medal performance with Team Canada in the FIL U19 world championship – and now she has more support. Last year's youth became this year's veterans.
Northwestern at a Glance
2015 Record: 14-7
3 Big Things
INSIDE THE NUMBERS
Northwestern has been in the Top 3 for strength of schedule the past five years, but still manage a lot of quality wins. The Wildcats were 8-7 against ranked opponents last season, including two losses to No. 1 Maryland and one to No. 2 North Carolina. Their most notable win was an 11-10 decision to then-No. 5 Syracuse on March 22.
1. Last year's youth returns with experience.
The Wildcats graduated just two starters from the end of last season, and several young players got experience in 2015 while Northwestern shuffled around its lineup trying to find the best combinations. Twelve returning field players started seven games or more, and the goalie spot is the only position without experience. "Obviously, the year of experience under our belts will help because people are going to be better, but it also helps in terms of our chemistry and teamwork," junior Sheila Nesselbush said. "In the fall, you're normally trying to click and find what works, but that came quicker for us because we already played together for a year." Northwestern had 14 freshmen last year.
2. Lasota isn't the only weapon.
It's rare to see a freshman face-guarded every game, but that was the case for Lasota last year, and she still accounted for almost a third of the team's 236 goals. However, Amonte Hiller said that with players around Lasota showing progress, that could open up the offense a little more this season. Of the seven players who finished with 20 points or more, Kara Mupo is the only one gone. Lasota's Canadian U19 teammate, Danita Stroup, also transferred in from LIU Brooklyn. "Our team has quite a few weapons," Amonte Hiller said. "We definitely have some strong goal scorers and dynamic players." Amonte Hiller is hoping the Wildcats can use their speed and athleticism more to their advantage this year, going one-on-one and playing good team lacrosse.
3. The Wildcats are fired up.
Northwestern is ready to get back on top after some ups and downs during the 2015 regular season, not even making it to the Big Ten championship and falling short of an 11th straight final four appearance with a 17-5 loss to eventual NCAA champion Maryland in the quarterfinals. "We didn't enjoy the downs last year, but having those losses under our belt lights a fire under us," Nesselbush said. "We're going to go out and crush it. We just have to stay hungry and focused." They'll need that fire right away, as they open with games against Duke, Virginia and Syracuse and play 12 teams that made the NCAA tournament last year.
* returning starters
The Big Ten Freshman of the Year led the Wildcats with 69 goals and 24 caused turnovers in 2015 and should be even more confident in year two. Lasota, who grew up playing box lacrosse, helped Canada to its first ever U19 world championship over the summer. "She's game-changing for our sport," Amonte Hiller said. "She brings a whole different skill set, an incredible amount of power, and she just keeps getting better."
A member of the U.S. U19 team's training roster, Harker finished her career at Mahopac (N.Y.) High with 273 goals, 51 assists, 313 ground balls and 397 draw controls and also played on the varsity boys' ice hockey team for four years. Amonte Hiller says she'll bring that physicality to the Wildcats as well.
With 46 goals, Craig was extremely productive last year coming back from a foot injury that sidelined her the last eight games of the 2014 season, and Amonte Hiller has a feeling she will be "really strong" this year. "She moves extremely well and just is a really tough weapon to stop," Amonte Hiller said.
Biggest Question Mark
Northwestern lost a three-year starter in Bridget Bianco, and both options to replace her are inexperienced at the college level. Junior Natalee Easthom played in one game as a freshman two years ago, and Mallory Weisse, who captained the U.S. U19 team to silver at the world championship, enters the position battle as a freshman.
After recovering from injury, Kaleigh Craig returned to the field as an impact midfielder, docking 46 goals in 2015. (Andrew Nelles)
What rival coaches say about the Wildcats
"I would take Lasota over any player in America, but she needs help. That offense was super stagnant last year and only Lasota caused matchup headaches. Will be interesting to see how they help her."
"Strengths: Selena Lasota, a deep bench. Weakness: Young goalkeeper with Mallory Weisse."
"Has something to prove. Young team in 2015 gained experience and could put that to good use this year."
"An up-and-down season for the Wildcats last year but a talented recruiting class and Selena Lasota's continued growth should get this team back in contention."
"Northwestern's a team that plays with a lot of emotion and a lot of fire. Kara Mupo's a loss. Kelly's set the bar as far as women's lacrosse and the success of the sport nationally."
"Last year they were super young. All those players are coming back with some experience. They'll probably be one of the teams to beat in the Big Ten. They always do a good job of coming up with some huge wins. Now that they're a year older, it makes them one year better."
"Northwestern is bringing back a young team. I know they are going to come back really strong and now they're going to have that experience, with freshmen and sophomores getting older. They're going to come back with a chip on their shoulder. Selena [Lasota] is just an incredible player. After the World Cup, she's going to be playing with a ton of confidence and be really fired up."
Northwestern's draw control rate last season, despite winning just 46 of 110 possessions on the draw (41.8 percent) through a 3-2 start that included one-goal wins over USC and Virginia. The Wildcats really focused on improving in that area – one that was never a concern before Alyssa Leonard graduated in 2014 – and hope to continue to improve at it.
* at Kennesaw, Ga.
February 7 at Duke
The Blue Devils exposed some weaknesses in Northwestern's game early last season, beating the Wildcats 15-9 while winning 17 of 26 draws. Facing an NCAA semifinalist in the opener is not only a test to see how improved the Wildcats are, but also a chance to avenge their first loss to Duke since 2006 after 12 straight wins in the series.
Northwestern will play its first game at the newly renovated Lanny & Sharon Martin Stadium on March 8 when the Wildcats host Marquette as part of a four-game home stretch. The renovations to the former Lakeside Field, which began late last spring, included new turf, lighting upgrades and state-of-the-art video equipment. It will also be the site of the Big Ten tournament this year.
The growing pains of last year should be well in the past for these Wildcats. The payoff? A return to the final four.
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