Youthful Wildcats take more than baby steps (Lacrosse Season Analysis)

Jason Arican

Realistically, aiming for a national championship might have come a little too soon for the Northwestern lacrosse team.

Coach Kelly Amonte Hiller said at the onset of the season that her team’s “ultimate goal” was to bring a national title to Evanston. NU’s only NCAA team championship was won by the fencing team in 1941.

Although the Wildcats (8-8, 2-4 American Lacrosse Conference) showed flashes of brilliance in improving on last year’s 5-10 finish, a berth into the national tournament was still several wins out of reach.

NU’s season could be divided into two parts: an inspiring 5-0 start against nonconference opponents and a disappointing finish against stronger ALC competition. The Cats finished 7-1 against unranked opponents, but went 1-7 against top-20 teams.

After a preseason knee injury sidelined the Cats’ top returning scorer, sophomore Sarah Albrecht, the team was left without an offensive leader. But sophomore Courtney Flynn and junior first-team All-ALC selection Courtney Koester soon stepped up as NU’s most dangerous offensive threats. The tandem lead the team in scoring after five games as the Cats broke into the national poll for the first time ever at No. 19.

By the end of the five-game undefeated streak, Flynn had tallied 12 goals — matching her total from the entire 2002 season.

But when NU started its conference schedule with three road games over spring break, the season took a turn for the worse. The Cats lost all three contests, as top-20 teams Ohio State, Vanderbilt and Johns Hopkins combined to outscore them 43-19.

In their first five games, the Cats had given up only 31 goals.

Ranked opponents gave NU trouble all season long. In only their second year back at varsity status, the Cats faced an extremely difficult schedule with eight top-20 squads.

“We can play at the top level, we just need to win at that level,” sophomore Kate Darmody said after the Cats’ disappointing loss to No. 18 Notre Dame.

The Cats’ first-ever win against a ranked team came April 6 when NU defeated No. 19 Connecticut 8-6.

Five days later, NU had the chance to beat another top-20 team when it took on 16th-ranked Stanford at home. With less than nine minutes remaining in the first half, the Cats were up 3-1. They took a 4-3 lead into halftime, but the Cardinal came back and outscored NU 6-1 in the second half en route to a 9-5 win.

The game raised another concern for the Cats — an inability to maintain an intense level of play for an entire game. In the second half of the season, NU either dug too deep a hole in the first half or faltered after the break.

On March 25, the Cats headed into halftime trailing by only two goals to No. 20 Vanderbilit, but went on to lose 15-8. NU outscored No. 10 Penn State 7-3 in the second half of their April 19 matchup, but it was not enough to overcome a nine-goal first-half deficit.

“It’s a matter of coming out with the intensity that great teams come out with,” Amonte Hiller said after the Penn State loss.

Although NU may not have accomplished all of its goals, it wasn’t difficult to find reasons to be optimistic for the future.

On a roster of 26, the Cats boasted only three upperclassmen and will lose only field-hockey convert Kendra Mesa to graduation. NU relied heavily on a freshman class including Lynda McCandlish and second-team All-ALC selections Lindsey Munday and Laura Glassanos, all of whom emerged as offensive threats when teams keyed in on Flynn and Koester.

The NU season served as a learning experience as much as anything else, and with Albrecht’s return and another year of expereince under their belts, the Cats may come closer to Amonte Hiller’s title prediction next season.

“We made some huge strides this year, and our team really developed,” midfielder Ashley Koester said. “We’re excited for next year, and we’re not young anymore so we can’t use that excuse. We’ve been able to grow together for so long, now we can start to make some noise.”