Lacrosse: Amid changing landscape, Northwestern clings to status as national power


Daily file photo by Brian Lee

Kara Mupo waits for a whistle. The senior is expected to lead a Northwestern attack filled with inexperienced castmates.

Ava Wallace, Reporter

Spring Sports Guide

There’s been an impending sense of change about women’s lacrosse for some time.

This season, teams that have popped up in recent years throughout the Midwest and West Coast are playing like programs with deeper lacrosse histories.

This season, the Big Ten opened its doors to a women’s and a men’s lacrosse league, expanding television coverage of lacrosse and shifting the sport’s geography in an official way.

And this season, after two straight exits in the NCAA semifinals and a loss at the American Lacrosse Conference championships for the first time in the history of the ALC, which disbanded after last season, Northwestern was ranked No. 5 in the coaches’ preseason poll, the lowest ranking the Wildcats have received since 2005.

A decade after NU won its first of seven national championships, change has come to the lacrosse world.

The Cats are just trying to keep up.

New year, new Cats

Since starting the year with two wins by a goal each against Southern California and Virginia, the defining word for No. 5 NU so far this year is “new.”

For starters, the Cats have a whopping 14-woman crew of fresh faces who joined the program this fall and are already making an impact. The group was ranked the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation by Inside Lacrosse magazine, as coach Kelly Amonte Hiller brought five top-20 prospects to Evanston.

Freshman midfielder Selena Lasota, No. 3 on that list, is NU’s leading scorer and has already become a bit of a phenom.

Lasota is from British Colombia, where she grew up playing box lacrosse, field lacrosse’s indoor, more physical, co-rec sibling. Used to playing with a deeper pocket than that of a traditional women’s lacrosse stick, it was Lasota’s ball-handling that initially attracted Amonte Hiller.

The freshman hasn’t disappointed. So far against this season, Lasota has muscled her way through tight defenses like a hot knife through butter and earned a Big Ten Freshman of the Week honor.

“She’s been playing with boys for a long period of time,” Amonte Hiller said. “She’s used to having to be physically strong enough to play against guys. She’s very creative and she’s used to working in really tight spaces, so she can execute well if you give her an inch.”

Fellow midfielder Shelby Fredericks — the fourth-ranked recruit in the nation — is another rookie proving her value early on.

Fredericks has two goals already and is representative of what the large freshman class means to the team.

This year’s freshmen are of a generation of players introduced to NU as a perennial championship-winning team. That exposure sparked an interest in the program early on — Fredericks first met Amonte Hiller as a seventh-grader at the coach’s summer camp — and also put the players in the position to reap the benefits that trickled down.

Shannon Smith, who graduated in 2012 as one of NU’s most accomplished players, was Fredericks’ coach at one time.

“I’ve always known about Northwestern. They’ve established themselves as a great program, and as I was growing up, there were a bunch of Long Island girls that came here,” Fredericks said. “It made it easy to see myself here. I wanted to surround myself with the best people for me.”

The freshmen have been visible on game days, but Amonte Hiller said the team benefits from their presence just as much in practice. A large squad means more competition, a wider range of scrimmage and drill situations at the coaches’ disposal and a depth of talent on the bench.

It helps that the newbies have the confidence needed to execute when close games, like NU’s first two this year, come down to the wire.

“I wouldn’t say I was expected to produce right away, but I knew that I wanted to, I knew that we could,” Fredericks said. “Coming in, the upperclassmen let us know, ‘You guys are the engine of this team. What you guys do propels onto everything else.’ We wanted to contribute in whatever role we’re given.”

Replacing a legend

Freshmen like Lasota and Fredericks are also part of the Cats’ new offense — one that doesn’t include a nearly automatic draw control win from former center Alyssa Leonard.

NU has won just 15 draws in two games, compared to 25 by its opponents. Practice usually ends with extra draw control work as Amonte Hiller refines her midfielders’ techniques and searches for a companion center to junior Lauren Murray, who starts in the position.

“When you’re used to winning 75 percent of the draw controls, I guess maybe it is a struggle,” Amonte Hiller said. “But we have a lot of young people doing the draw. … It’s just a matter of us gaining experience. We’ve got new people on the circle. It’s a whole new ballgame.”

The loss of that automatic possession, combined with the graduation of several of NU’s core attackers, means the offense’s production has decreased.

Senior Kara Mupo and juniors Kaleigh Craig — healthy again after a season-ending injury last season — and Christina Esposito will bear the brunt of the attacking burden.

But so far it’s been the defense that’s kept the Cats alive in its two contests. Goalkeeper Bridget Bianco leads a defense anchored by senior Haydyn Anigian, usually deployed to shut down an opponent’s top offensive threat and filled out with multi-talented sophomore Sheila Nesselbush and junior Nancy Dunbar.

It was the defense that stemmed USC’s 7-0 onslaught in the Cats’ season opener, allowed only four goals in the second half and kept one of the top scorers in the nation, Liza Blue from Virginia, off the score sheet in NU’s second game of the season.

Bianco feels a new sense of comfort in her position as a third-year starter, but attributes the defense’s success to each player’s willingness to step up and be a leader.

Amonte Hiller said that confidence translates well on the field.

“We have a lot of athletes back there this year playing great one-on-one defense, great team defense,” Amonte Hiller said. “(Backup goalkeeper) Brooke Jones is really pushing Bridget. They’re a great unit along with (backup goalkeeper Natalee Easthom), so there’s a lot of dynamic that happens before the game starts that’s really the key to our success on game day.”

Beat the best to be the best

There’s one last new aspect to NU’s season, and it’s not one to overlook.

This year, the Cats play No. 1 Maryland in the regular season for the first time since 2007 — the contest opens conference play on March 26 — thanks to the Terrapins’ move to the Big Ten.

But Maryland certainly isn’t NU’s only formidable opponent this season; the Cats face 10 other top-20 teams in the nation.

Although this year is particularly daunting, Amonte Hiller believes it’s one of the best ways to stay afloat well into the post-season, especially with the youth of her team and the changes happening in lacrosse.

“You have to be able to play the best if you want to be the best,” Amonte Hiller said. “Obviously we could not be more excited about the Big Ten. We have so many great threats in our conference. It’s grueling mentally. You have to really focus and prepare, but I think this team is ready for the challenge. They love challenges.”

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