Lacrosse: Assist assassins have long history

Danny Daly

Northwestern’s Hannah Nielsen (left) and Maryland’s Jen Adams (right) sit atop the NCAA leaderboard in career assists. The Wildcats
senior surpassed Adams’ mark of 178 earlier this season against Syracuse, and currently has 210 entering Saturday’s NCAA quarterfinal
matchup with the Princeton Tigers. Daily file photo (Left), Photo Courtesy of Maryland Athletics (RIGHT)

Despite Northwestern’s recent success, lacrosse remains a predominantly East Coast sport. Almost 80 percent of the current Wildcats hail from that region, while only seven come from elsewhere.

One of those players is Australian Hannah Nielsen – the NCAA Division I career assists leader and the defending Tewaaraton Trophy winner. She grew up in Adelaide, the same place that old record-holder Jen Adams did.

While starring on the last four national championship teams of the Maryland dynasty (1998-2001), Adams occasionally returned to her homeland to help coach youth lacrosse. Nielsen was one of her best pupils, and the two have competed on Australian national teams together ever since.

“I think I learned more from Jen playing with her than I have anywhere else,” Nielsen said. “She’s who I look up to in the sport. I’ve watched her play so many times. I try to model my game off her and also the way she goes about it, the laid-back attitude.”

Adams pretty much knew from the first time she watched Nielsen play that she had the talent and heart to become a great player, she said. In addition to a tireless work ethic and hard-nosed style of play, Nielsen had qualities that could not be taught.

“The unexplainable is what really sets her apart,” Adams said. “She just seems to read the game better than anyone. She has that innate ability to step onto the lacrosse field and to make things happen.”

Nielsen’s selflessness was also evident early on and nothing has changed since then. She broke Adams’ all-time assist mark earlier this season against Duke. She set NU’s career assist record a few games later. She is currently tied for the most assists in a single season.

That comes as no surprise to Adams.

“She just wants to be the best player she can be for her teammates,” she said. “I think that speaks volumes about the type of athlete she is. She wants to give the ball to people – I’m sure she takes more from that than putting the ball in the back of the net.”

The two remain close, living five minutes away from each other back home. They will also represent Australia in a tournament this June.

From those experiences, Adams and Nielsen have learned that they share a competitive nature. In Adams’ eyes, Nielsen demonstrates that determination off of the lacrosse field.

“When she sets her mind on something, it’s pretty much guaranteed,” Adams said. “Hannah is really good at everything. It could be something as simple as an invented game while we’re swimming in the pool – she’s going to dominate at it.”

Even though Australia produced two of the best players in lacrosse, the sport has not seen significant growth there.

Nielsen estimates between 1,000 and 2,000 people compete Down Under, and that she and Adams might actually be better-known for their lacrosse achievements in the United States.

But many younger players have followed their lead in crossing over the Pacific to compete at the highest level.

“More and more kids are seeing opportunities to come to the States, and I think that’s been the biggest difference,” Adams said. “It’s helping to propel more kids from Australia having that dream of coming over here and being able to achieve big things.”

Nielsen might have surpassed Adams on the assists list. But she stillneeds to lead the Cats to three more wins before she matches Adams’ feat of winning four national championships in four collegiate seasons.

And after Nielsen graduates? She could always follow in Adams’ footsteps again.

“I’ve seen Hannah coach,” said Adams, who became the coach of Loyola (Md.) last summer. “She can relay the game and her vision of it and her passion for the sport. It would be a real attribute to the game to have one of her minds join the coaching forces.”

[email protected]