Lacrosse: Northwestern is Revvin for Seven in 2012

Rohan Nadkarni

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It was supposed to be six in a row. Northwestern was the winner of five straight national championships and was poised to be the national champion for the sixth year in a row in 2010 – until the Maryland Terrapins defeated the Cats in the NCAA tournament final.

Last year, the Wildcats avenged their loss to the Terrapins, downing their rival and reclaiming top-dog status. The team now owns six of the last seven national championships, and last year’s Tewaaraton Awardwinner Shannon Smith will lead the team in its quest for a seventh trophy in 2012.

“It was good. It was exciting,” Smith said about defeating Maryland in last year’s final. “We set out that year not wanting to lose after we lost my sophomore year. It was like, ‘This is not happening again. We’re going to win the national championship.'”

The team appears prepared to dominate another season. The Cats have already played two games, both against top-10 opponents on the road. In each match, NU left with a comfortable victory.

In their first game against No. 6 Stanford, the Cats ended the Cardinal’s 22-game home winning streak at Cagan Stadium. After taking care of business in California, NU held the high-powered Duke offense in check in a 13-5 victory.

The wins have come without sophomore attacker Kara Mupo, who missed the first two games due to injury. The second-year player scored 22 goals last season and also had a multigoal game in the national championship against Maryland. Despite Mupo’s absence, NU has had no trouble finding offense so far.

Coach Kelly Amonte-Hiller said the team’s two wins didn’t happen easily. “I would say that we had some good moments. We focused in on discipline; that was our main focus. But we have a long way to go.”

Team discipline and chemistry look to be high, with the Cats returning most of their starters from last season. Only two starters from last year’s squad are gone, and five seniors left overall.

The most important returner will be Smith, who has already been placed on the Tewaaraton preseason watch list and stands a solid chance to repeat as the winner.

Last year, Smith put up one of the most prolific seasons in lacrosse history. The senior attacker scored 86 goals, notched 42 assists and won MVP of the American Lacrosse Conference championship game and NCAA Championship in her junior year.

Smith also won numerous awards in addition to the Tewaaraton, including Big Ten Female Athlete of the Year and the Lacrosse Honda Sports Award as the nation’s best player. But the West Babylon, N.Y., native still has more goals for this year.

“For me, I want to have fun out there and just play well for this team,” Smith said. “It’s my last year playing lacrosse, so I want to play every day as hard as I can and not think about it being my last year.”

The senior attacker will be joined by one of her partners in crime, fellow senior goalkeeper Brianne LoManto.

LoManto is in her third season as NU’s starting goalie and has been a consistent performer. Last year, the senior from Miller Place, N.Y., started every game for the Cats for the second year in a row and had the fourth-best single season saves total in school history, with 149.

“It’s my senior year, and I want to be someone who the younger players can look to,” LoManto said. “It’s pretty special (that it’s my last year). It’s a sport I’ve been playing since sixth grade.”

LoManto will be aided by standout junior defender Taylor Thornton. Thornton was also named to the Tewaaraton preseason watch list and won ALC Defensive Player of the Week for her play in NU’s first two games.

Last season, Thornton won multiple defender of the year awards and achieved All-American status. The Dallas native scored 14 goals, including a game winner against then-No. 3 North Carolina in overtime.

Despite their numerous individual and team accolades, the veteran leaders of the Cats still have work to do, Amonte Hiller said.

“They have done a great job so far,” Amonte Hiller said. “But their time here is not over. They have a lot to prove this season. This is their leadership year. They really need to make sure they continue to focus and help all the other kids learn the lessons of our program.”

Although the Cats have been extremely successful in the past decade, they continue to find sources of motivation. One game that stands out in the schedule this year is an April 21 battle against Florida.

Similar to NU’s rise in the Midwest, the Florida program has become competitive in a region not typically associated with lacrosse. Last year, the Gators handed NU its first defeat in conference play since May 6, 2004. The Cats would then defeat the Gators in the ALC championship game.

This year, NU will host Florida during the regular season, and a potential rematch could occur in Gainesville, Fla., the site of this year’s ALC tournament.

However, Amonte Hiller refused to look ahead to any game, instead using other methods to keep the team motivated throughout the season.

“Challenging them,” Amonte Hiller said on how she keeps the team on its toes. “It’s great to have games because you can measure yourselves, but we’re really just trying to re-evaluate ourselves every single day and look inside and see how we can get better.”

Amonte Hiller, who played collegiate lacrosse at Maryland, said she did not believe last year’s national championship game was revenge of any sort, despite the common story that was made of it.

“Honestly, it wasn’t about avenging a loss,” Amonte Hiller said. “It was more about winning a national championship. To have that opportunity and come out with a win is something that is so special in life, you can’t even describe the feeling.”

Championships have become the norm for Amonte Hiller. In addition to the team’s six national championships, Amonte Hiller has guided the Cats to eight conference titles.

Amonte Hiller, who completed her 10th year as head coach last season, has already amassed a list of accomplishments that would take even the best college coaches many decades to repeat.

The Maryland graduate took the Cats to the NCAA quarterfinals in only the team’s third season since being reinstated as a varsity sport in 2002. ESPN the Magazine ranked Amonte Hiller among the 20 best recruiters in college sports in 2011, and the prolific winner has a 29-2 record in the NCAA tournament since 2004.

“I really try not to look back. I try to look forward as much as possible,” Amonte Hiller said. “Obviously I’m really proud of the kids I’ve graduated from this program. To see them today with their jobs and families is a really cool thing. To have them feel like they’re part of my family, too, that’s my biggest pride.”

The team definitely appears to be a family. Amonte Hiller’s husband, Massachusetts lacrosse star Scott Hiller, serves as assistant coach, while another of the team’s assistant coaches, Ann Elliott, graduated from NU in 2007.

Amonte Hiller’s players seem to buy into their coach’s family concept.

“She’s the best coach out there,” Smith said. “She stays on top of the game and sets the bar high for other coaches out there. I think she means everything to this program. Her passion translates over to the players.”

Both LoManto and Smith expressed the value of playing with the current group of seniors as teammates and wanting to leave on a high note.

“We have everyone but five coming back,” LoManto said. “It happens every year; you always have some new faces and some old faces. It’s about making the best opportunities you can with the specific team that we have.”

Knowing this is her last year at NU, Smith reflected on the experience with her teammates.

“It’s special when you look back on it,” Smith said. “You have to enjoy every moment that you are with your team. I love this team. They’re like my second family.”

In addition to the big matchup with the Gators, a few marquee contests loom on the Cats’ schedule.

NU’s first home game will be a televised matchup against Oregon on March 3. The Cats will embark March 31 on a three-game road trip, during which they will face Ohio State at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., and Penn State and Pennsylvania in the Quaker State.

NU’s last five regular season games will come at home, including the bout with Florida.

For all of the winning that has happened in Amonte Hiller’s tenure, even her most experienced players remain hungry for another national championship.

“Our goal is to play hard every day and get better as a team,” Smith said. “Knowing that there are people out there that want to take you down, I think that’s motivation to not get taken down and to stay on top.”

Amonte Hiller’s long-term goals include another national championship, but she said she also wants her team to play with the right mentality.

“For this team, my goals are for them to stay focused on a daily basis, to work hard on a daily basis and get better each day they step on to the field,” Amonte Hiller said. “If we can keep our mindset in that place, good things will happen.”