Gentilviso: Spencer steps up, states case

Chris Gentilviso

For 12 minutes, it looked like an apocalypse.

Well, the Northwestern women’s lacrosse apocalypse at least – three turnovers, nine fouls, a yellow card and a 3-0 deficit against No. 17 Penn State.

All it took to stop NU’s sluggish start was a burst of speed from the tallest player on either roster.

As Danielle Spencer blazed past the Penn State defense, she not only scored the Wildcats’ first goal, but stated her case to be the next leader of the sport’s finest college dynasty.

“We did it without even taking a timeout, which was nice,” coach Kelly Amonte Hiller said of Spencer’s goal. “The girls responded themselves, and we were trying to send messages in through the box. I think Danielle really started it, and it was exciting.”

Sunday’s 17-6 win marked the arrival of NU lacrosse without Hilary Bowen, and, thanks to the efforts of her best friend from high school, the No. 1 team in the nation didn’t miss a beat.

With Bowen likely out for the season, it’s time to find a new face to consistently wow the opposition. Hannah Nielsen has a Tewaaraton Trophy under her belt and is padding her assists lead in the NCAA record book.

Someone was going to have to replace Bowen’s scoring prowess eventually, and her unfortunate injury has only accelerated the search.

Spencer appears to be that new face. Since Bowen painfully limped off the field in last Saturday’s 21-4 drubbing of California, the junior has nine goals on 14 shots.

“We’re going to have to try some new stuff,” Spencer said. “We’ve got some position changes with the loss of Hilary. She did so much more for us than just scoring goals.”

Beyond her ability to distract defenses and create crevices for her teammates, Bowen provided a face for NU lacrosse that made it an attractive destination for the best high school players.

Just ask Spencer, who came to NU largely because Bowen made the same choice. The two formed a dominant attack for three years at Brighton High School in Rochester, N.Y.

In the spring of 2005, Spencer watched Bowen sign the dotted line to come play for Amonte Hiller and the Cats as they won their first national championship.

Those two factors made the decision to come to NU an easy one for Spencer.

“If they hadn’t won, I still would have leaned there because of Hilary, but that really sealed the deal,” Spencer told The DAILY last April. “I wanted to play at the best place I can, and this is obviously the best.”

For NU to continue to be the best, dwelling on the injury of one of its senior leaders is not an option. Amonte Hiller has embraced arguably the steepest adversity her program has faced since its string of national championships began, by trusting her freshmen to pick up the slack.

Trailing 3-2, senior Meredith Frank’s free position shot went wide. But with a wise backup from senior midfielder Hannah Nielsen, freshman attacker Shannon Smith was in position for the game-tying goal. Two minutes later, the Cats continued to showcase its new talent, as freshman midfielder Jessica Russo went top shelf to extend the lead to 5-3.

Penn State went scoreless for the next 22 minutes, and NU was cruising to their 50th straight win in Evanston. Not that anyone on the home bench noticed.

“I was actually unaware of that,” Nielsen said. “But definitely milestones don’t mean a whole lot unless you win a national championship. That’s where we’re sitting at for goals for this year.”

At this point, the only benchmark for this program is winning another title.

With four games left before the start of the postseason, Amonte Hiller said the Bowen injury comes at a good time for NU for three reasons: making adjustments, getting stronger and having new faces ready to compete.

But finding a leader for the best program in the nation doesn’t happen overnight. After Sunday’s performance, there’s no doubt that Spencer is ready to take on that role.

“She’s huge and she’s really hard to stop,” Amonte Hiller said. “You have to put two and three defenders on her, and even if she doesn’t score a goal, she’s creating offense for us. When she plays well, we play well.”

Sports Editor Chris Gentilviso is a Medill senior. He can be reached at [email protected]