Unstoppable Champions

Nina Mandell

 Lacrosse Photos

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — As coach Kelly Amonte Hiller and the Northwestern players dogpiled in celebration at midfield, one simple gesture summed up their perfect season — individual index fingers all raised in unison.

That’s how the Wildcats (21-0) finished their season Sunday at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium with a 13-10 win over defending champions Virginia (17-5) in the national title game.

The victory marks the first NCAA team championship for NU in any sport since men’s fencing in 1941.

“Unbelievable,” NU coach Kelly Amonte Hiller said. “I have no words for this team … We knew we would need every player to show up today and every player came to play.”

After an NCAA tournament run in which NU’s defense carried the offense, the Cats’ scoring attack came alive against Virginia.

Sophomore Kristen Kjellman, a finalist for the Tewaaraton Trophy given to the national player of the year, netted NU’s first five goals and sophomore Aly Joseph’s second goal with 5:53 left to put the game out of reach at 13-8.

Playing in her final game in an NU uniform, senior goaltender Ashley Gersuk was key in Virginia’s last-ditch offensive spurt at the end of the game. Gersuk finished with eight saves on 23 shots and limited the Cavaliers to just three goals in the second half.

“We knew Virginia was explosive,” Amonte Hiller said. “They’re the most offensive team in Division I.”

The Cats are the first team from outside the Eastern Time Zone to win a national championship in women’s lacrosse, and NU’s 21 wins in a season are the second most in NCAA lacrosse history. The Cats are also only the fourth different team since 1991 to win an NCAA title.

The win also gave the Cats revenge on the team that gave them their last loss. Virginia knocked NU out of the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament last year before going on to win its third national championship.

With senior defender Ashley Koester marking Virginia’s leading scorer Amy Appelt throughout the game, the Cats kept the First-Team All-American to one goal. But they had trouble containing Cary Chasney, who finished the game with six goals.

Chasney’s six goals tied the all-time record for the most goals scored in a championship game and the Cavaliers were only the third team to score in double digits on the Cats this season.

“Our (offensive) attack definitely stepped it up,” senior defender Ashley Koester said. “We really went into halftime saying we really have to step it up defensively.”

The Cats held an 8-7 halftime lead after a Virginia goal was not counted before halftime because it was shot after the buzzer. Unlike basketball, a shot must cross the goal line before time expires for it to be counted.

After another Virginia goal was discounted on a crease rule violation early in the second half, NU’s offense exploded. Senior Sarah Albrecht scored two of her three goals while sophomore Kristen Boege netted her second goal of the game and ninth of the year.

After Lindsey Munday scored the Cats’ 12th goal, the team went into possession mode to retain its lead with 12:08 left.

NU tossed the ball around the Cavalier defense for seven minutes before it went back to the middle of the field — for a draw control following the Cats’ last goal scored by Josephs.

“To be honest, they caught me by surprise,” Virginia coach Julie Myers said. “I think it’s hard to stall for three minutes and they did it for 15.”

Virginia made a last-ditch effort for the title, switching goalies and scoring two goals in the last 1:44 of the game. But it wasn’t enough to keep the Cats from jumping into a big heap in celebration and grabbing the trophy.

And the players said despite the doubt in their team that stemmed from their toughness of schedule and rumored focus on athleticism over stick skills in recruiting, they knew they were heading for the national championship all season.

“We believe in each other and trust in each other,” Koester said. “In the beginning there were a lot of doubters, but to be honest with you, we didn’t listen to those people and just trusted in each other as teammates. We believed that we could make it this far and win the national championship.”

Following the title game, Kjellman was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player while Albrecht, Munday, Courtney Koester and Ashley Koester were named to the All-Tournament Team.

Earlier Sunday, the Intercollegiate Women’s Lacrosse Coaches Association and U.S. Lacrosse named Kjellman, Courtney Koester and Munday to the IWLCA/U.S. Lacrosse All-American First Team. Albrecht and Laura Glassanos, the Cats’ fourth leading scorer who sat out the tournament with an injury, were named to the Second Team.

Reach Nina Mandell at [email protected]