NU takes third at club nationals to end year

Lindsay Dewall

The Northwestern women’s lacrosse team huddled in a tight circle, stretching for its first-ever Final Four game in the U.S. Lacrosse Intercollegiate Associates (USLIA) Club Championships. One by one the Wildcats spoke, voicing an affirmation to mentally prepare the team for victory.

“My opponent is a gift that pushes me to greater heights,” one player recited, and her teammates repeated in unison.

“I am only as strong as my weakest link; strengthen it and I will improve,” another affirmed.

As each player took her turn, serious faces concentrated on the game at hand and absorbed the words echoing around the circle. Finally, the last affirmation of the warmup, a team tradition, bounded out of the grinning Cats: “We’re in control and ready to roll!”

NU ran onto the field Sunday against California Poly-San Luis Obispo ready to end its year as an “elevated” club team with a bang. At 20-2, the Cats were only two games away from the title of club national champions. And although NU lost in the semifinals, the team ended its season tied for third in the nation – its best finish ever – the season before it goes varsity.

The road to the Final Four wasn’t without its battles. In 2000 the lacrosse team was a ramshackle collection of players who had to struggle to draw enough people to practice each day.

Then in 2001, with a new coach, university funding and the athletic department’s support, the team took the season by storm, losing just one game going into the club championships with seven other teams last weekend in St. Louis.

“We knew we had a good shot at the championship,” coach Kelly Amonte-Hiller said. “We prepared them for any type of setting and were ready to play our game.”

NU started out its first game of round-robin play versus Texas A&M on May 11 with Amonte-Hiller’s words ringing true. The Cats scored first and dominated the game, beating the Aggies 17-7 behind sophomore Lillian Lardy’s four goals and three assists and sophomore goalie Kelly Matheson’s nine saves. Both were later named to the all-tournament team.

With NU’s victory, the Cats were guaranteed a spot in the Final Four the following day. But first the Cats had one more battle, a showdown against top-ranked Navy to determine the seedings for the Final Four.

“We didn’t want to admit it, but we were pretty intimidated going in,” junior Erin Celentano said. “But then in the first two minutes we knew we were in it. We could tell we were equal – if not the stronger team.”

The nail-biting game went back and forth until the end of the contest, with both teams struggling to take the lead. The Midshipmen broke a 9-9 tie, scoring two quick goals in the final five minutes to win 11-9. Only the Cats’ second loss of the season, sophomore co-captain Alexis Cohen said the team was disappointed but not disheartened. Amonte-Hiller said the team still felt it was in a good position going into Sunday’s Final Four.

The team woke up early Sunday morning with renewed confidence, ready to take on Cal-Poly. Under St. Louis’ sunny skies, the Cats took to their circle of affirmations, zoning in on their pregame preparations.

“When we do affirmations, we’re strengthening our confidence in ourselves and our team as a whole,” Celentano said. “We really take to heart the mental side of the game.”

The Cats’ optimism didn’t hold up on the playing field. NU’s seemingly flawless season was stopped short by the Mustangs and their unique defensive zone, which crowded the goal and kept the Cats struggling to score, Amonte-Hiller said. Cal-Poly handed the Cats an 11-7 loss to end their 2001 season – and their 10-year stretch as a club team.

The Mustangs went on to win the club championships, beating Navy 13-6.

“Our whole season built up to this weekend,” Celentano said. “Mentally and physically we were prepared, confident in our play. Though it didn’t turn out as we wanted, we still had an incredible season.”

Added Cohen: “This year was so bittersweet. We put together 17 random people who came together and formed this team and got so close. It was a special year, and it’ll never be like this again.”

The Cats lose three seniors going into next year: Kelly Cook, Susan Garea and Julie Lazarus. In their place and marking the start of lacrosse’s varsity status will be 15 incoming freshmen, Amonte-Hiller’s first recruiting class.

“This year’s team has knowledge about how I coach and will provide good leadership for the girls coming in next year,” she said. “I’m looking forward to next year and meshing the girls together.”