Forman: Confident, cool Cats zoning in

Matt Forman

Tuesday afternoon conjured several different thoughts in the minds of the four-time reigning national champions.

For the seniors, it was their last day of practice at Lakeside Field – a place where they will finish undefeated in their four seasons.

For the team, it was its last day of preparation in Evanston before traveling to Towson, Md. – a place where they hoisted the title trophy a year ago.

At Northwestern’s Media Day on Tuesday, the thought of a fifth straight title might have left the roster of 31 feeling overjoyed. Or ecstatic. Or nervous. Or anxious.

But the Cats felt none of those emotions. Instead, the team took on the demeanor of its coach.

“I think I’ve always been comfortable in that position, and when your coach is comfortable, it gives the players a sense of comfort too,” Kelly Amonte Hiller said.

On Tuesday, the determined Amonte Hiller was calm, cool and collected. Going for her seventh combined national championship as a coach and a player presented nothing new.

Amonte Hiller’s team wasn’t feeling cocky. It was feeling confident, because it has the same goal it’s already achieved.

Now, Amonte Hiller and her players have the luxury of tunnel vision.

“I want to win more now than I have any of the other years,” senior midfielder Hannah Nielsen said. “We’re not going on a vacation. We’re going down there to do work.”

Work, the Cats will do.

It all starts with the same, familiar routine that ironically sounds like a vacation.

The tunnel begins with an early morning flight from Chicago Midway Airport to Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. Then, the team takes a 35-minute drive from the airport around the Baltimore city limits, to Towson University.

Next, Amonte Hiller conducts several practices on Wednesday and Thursday to fine tune the team, followed by film sessions to prepare her gameplan. Against a familiar foe in Pennsylvania, this means winning the draw controls, time of possession battles and shots on goal battles. It also means maximizing the time the Quakers’ top-flight defense has to be on the prowl.

That routine has become intrinsic to the program’s success over the last few seasons – so intrinsic that one flight from Chicago to the East Coast might blend with another. Still, Nielsen remembers her first trip to the Final Four, a flight to Boston back in 2006.

“Four years ago, I was just excited,” Nielsen said. “I didn’t really understand the seriousness of it all. Then it was kind of like, ‘Oh yeah, we get to play again.’ Now I’m kind of taking ownership of the team.”

Along with 10 other seniors on the Cats’ roster, Nielsen has done just that. The group has played in 12 NCAA tournament games, winning every matchup.

But this group has done something that the previous national championship teams they’ve been a part of didn’t do