Lacrosse: Northwestern hungry for another title after disappointing end to 2015
February 17, 2016
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Ten years after their first National Championship, the Wildcats fell — hard.
In May 2015, No. 1 seeded Maryland handed Northwestern its worst loss of the season in the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament, knocking the Cats out of championship weekend for the first time in a decade.
The loss was an end to an underwhelming season. Some wondered if it was the end of a dynasty. For the Cats, however, it’s just motivation.
Armed with a corps of top recruits, No. 4 Northwestern (1-1) is back on the field and hungry for revenge.
“Last year didn’t go as we had hoped, obviously,” junior midfielder Sheila Nesselbush said. “Having so many returners, we all went through it and felt the disappointment, and I think that that is lighting a fire under us. We are not going to let it happen again.”
But after splitting a pair of games to then-No. 4 Duke and No. 10 Virginia in their opening week, it’s clear that the season isn’t going to be seamless.
Victims of a decade’s accumulation of expectations, the Cats may have more to prove now than ever before.
There is a group of 10 new players donning NU jerseys this year, comprised of nine freshmen and a junior transfer. Keeping with expectation, the new class is exceptionally strong; Inside Lacrosse ranked the Cats’ class as No. 8 in the country.
Many new recruits played on the U.S. or Canadian U19 national teams and almost all were named All-Americans in high school.
Just one week into the season, some freshmen have already seen playing time.
“They’ve all been doing a great job,” coach Kelly Amonte Hiller said after the Duke matchup. “Obviously Mallory (Weisse) played well in her first game. Claire Quinn got in there and played pretty strong too. Nell Copeland got in there as well. Those three have really emerged.”
The most impactful new member thus far has been Weisse, who is the Cats’ new starting goalie after Bridget Bianco graduated.
Following an outstanding performance against Duke as the second NU freshman to ever start a season opener, Weisse was named National Rookie of the Week by Inside Lacrosse. Weisse had a similarly successful game against Virginia, recording 10 saves in the loss.
The Westfield, New Jersey, native said her experience captaining the U19 national team prepared her for the jump into elite college lacrosse.
“I had a lot of great talent shooting on me,” Weisse said. “(NU is) definitely a step up, so I adjust myself a lot. We have a pretty veteran defense in there and everyone is helping me with the plays and the sets.”
New year, new rules
Players and coaches in Division I lacrosse are trying to adapt to a slew of rule changes for the 2016 season.
Perhaps the biggest change this year deals with the continuation of play after a penalty. Previously, players granted possession would have to wait for the penalized player to move four meters away and for the referee to blow their whistle before starting play.
Starting this season, the player granted possession is able to continue play without the referee’s whistle. The only caveat to this self-restart is that the offending player may not be a full four meters away. It is the player’s choice as to whether they wish to self-restart or wait for the referee’s whistle.
The new rule, almost identical to the foul procedure in collegiate field hockey, is an attempt to speed up the pace of play. Amonte Hiller sees the rule change as a positive addition, a sentiment that is echoed by her players.
“People are still getting used to it, but it’s great any way we can make our game faster,” Amonte Hiller said. “I think it’s exciting for the fans. I think it’s exciting for the athletes.”
Another major rule reversal concerns the 3-second penalty. Any defender who is in the 8-meter arc for 3 seconds without being within a stick’s distance of an offensive player is called for a penalty.
In past seasons this was considered a major foul, and the offensive team was awarded a free-position shot on goal. Starting this year, the 3-second penalty is considered a minor foul, and the offense is awarded the ball outside of the 12-meter arc.
Other rule changes this season include the addition of a possession arrow for offsetting fouls, the implementation of sudden-death overtime and required stick checks after scoring plays.
“Everyone is still getting used to the rules,” sophomore attacker Selena Lasota said. “I definitely think that the 3-second rule is overall just a good rule change, and obviously the self-start is just going to make the game faster.”
However, the biggest rule change for women’s lacrosse still looms. Starting in the 2017 season, Divison I will add a 90-second shot clock. In a game where flow, pacing and timing are crucial, the shot clock will completely disrupt the current style of play.
Amonte Hiller, Weisse, Nesselbush and Lasota all said they haven’t begun to think about the shot clock and are just focusing on this year’s changes.
The game plan
There’s no question NU has the talent necessary to win; the outcome of this season will depend on teamwork and execution.
After a busy offseason leading the Canadian U19 national team to its first world championship, Big Ten Freshman of the Year Lasota is back and already leads the team in goals and shots.
Lasota said not much has changed since last year, save for the extra year of experience.
“Physically, I have kept training really hard,” Lasota said. “Mentally, I think that it’s the same as everything. The more preparation you have, the better.”
But Lasota isn’t the only player the Cats will need to lean on this season.
Offensively, the veteran squad of Nesselbush, senior midfielder Kaleigh Craig, junior attacker Danita Stroup and attacking midfielder Shelby Fredericks has the experience and camaraderie to be an unrelenting force on the field.
The challenge this year will be channeling their learned teamwork into precision, mainly in the midfield where they have struggled so far with possession. Draws will also be crucial; in the Cats’ lackluster first half against Virginia, they only grabbed 1-of-9 draw controls.
The defense, on the other hand, finds itself in a unique situation. After losing Bianco, the seasoned group now has a freshman in the cage and at the helm.
Nesselbush said Weisse has fit seamlessly into their unit, and cohesion is always a focus on defense.
“The biggest struggle on defense is figuring out who works well together and how to make it click,” Nesselbush said. “I guess since we’ve all been here before, we know how to play with each other already. Mallory’s a freshman, but she doesn’t play like one.”
Amonte Hiller said if the team achieves this unity, this season won’t be another disappointment. Maybe, she said, they already have accomplished this goal.
“You got some seniors (on defense) and some returners from playing out of the midfield, and I think it definitely helps to have that cohesiveness, the gelling,” Amonte Hiller said. “Early on in the season, I think that we worked hard at that. That’s been our focus both offensively and defensively — play together as a team, and we’ll do good things.”