Lacrosse Roundtable: Writers discuss Northwestern’s postseason chances

Claire Hansen and Dan Waldman

As the regular season heads into the final stretch, Northwestern finds itself at 7-7 with two regular season games remaining. The Daily’s lacrosse reporters convened to discuss the team as it prepares for the postseason and looks to win its 8th NCAA Tournament since 2005.

1. What needs to be the team’s main focus heading into postseason play?

Dan Waldman: If this team wants to a make a run in the postseason, then its defense has to improve. In the Cats’ 14-11 loss to USC last week, the Trojans scored 11 of their 14 goals off of assists, and a majority came from dumping the ball to an open shooter right on top of the crease. NU’s defense struggled to rotate to open attackers, especially in transition. The Cats’ slow rotations have been a recurring problem throughout the season, and NU needs to shore up its defensive slides to eliminate goals coming from one-on-one opportunities with the goalie.The team can improve on this by either winning even more draw controls or limiting turnovers that result in fastbreaks.

Claire Hansen: You’ll hear Kelly Amonte Hiller and the players say it all the time: They just need to play their game. There’s no question that the Cats have some of the best talent in the country. Their major losses this year have come from a kind of sloppiness that is uncharacteristic of NU. If the Cats can tighten up their fundamentals — limiting turnovers, sharpening their passes, taking care of the ball — they’re going to have no problem finding success in both the Big Ten and, if they make it, the NCAA.

2. How far can the Cats go in the Big Ten Tournament?

Hansen: Of course, this is really going to depend on the bracket. Barring an unexpectedly stellar performance against Maryland, the Cats can pretty much expect the Terrapins will beat them. Ohio State and Penn State are tossups, and we’ll find out in the next two weeks how they stack up to those two squads. The Cats should be able to handle any other Big Ten opponents.

Waldman: This team simply cannot beat Maryland. The Terrapins are most likely going to go undefeated this season, and win the Big Ten Tournament. However, NU has a chance to make it to the Big Ten Championship game — as long as it doesn’t have to face the Terrapins until then. The only other two legitimate threats in the conference are Penn State and Ohio State. But the Nittany Lions are not nearly of the same caliber as last year’s team that ended the Cats’ run in the conference tournament. Although Penn State has the No. 11 scoring offense in the country, its defense has been struggling and isn’t in the top-50 scoring defenses in the nation. Meanwhile, Ohio State’s biggest knock is that it has had a fairly easy schedule. In the Buckeyes’ two games against teams ranked higher than them, they were outscored by a margin of 33-12. Neither Penn State nor Ohio State will be a cupcake win for NU, but if the Cats continue to play at their top level, they should have no problem making it to the conference championship.

3. In order to qualify for the NCAA tournament, NU needs to go .500 on the season. They currently sit right at .500 with two tough games to play before the Big Ten Tournament. Who needs to step up for the Cats to help them secure a NCAA bid?

Waldman: Kaleigh Craig is going to have to put this team on her back. The senior attacker has scored 9 goals in her last two games and has the veteran experience to lead this team in these next two critical games. Missing out on the tournament is not a result that Craig is accustomed to, and the senior doesn’t plan on experiencing it for the first time this year. Craig has to lead the offense in vital wins over Penn State and Ohio State, especially with a large portion of teams locking off sophomore Selena Lasota. Lasota is still finding ways to get to the cage, but for these next two weeks, this is Craig’s team.

Hansen: In short, everyone. In such a high scoring, fast paced game, the old adage that a team is only as strong as its weakest link really holds true. We’ve seen sophomore Selena Lasota really step up in the past couple games after a midseason slump and she’s going to be crucial in pushing the team to that magic .500. Senior attacker Kaleigh Craig will need to remain consistent in the attacking third, and sophomore attacker Shelby Fredricks will have to dominant on the draw circle.

4. Even though they’re still a lacrosse powerhouse, this year’s Cats look much different than the teams that won national championships. How do the Cats rebound from a relatively disappointing season?

Hansen: Here’s the thing — NU hasn’t had a bad season by any stretch of the imagination. The difficulty of NU’s schedule is absurd. Ten of the Cats’ 14 games so far have been against ranked opponents, and Penn State and Ohio state — their final two opponents — are currently ranked as well. If teams like UNC or Notre Dame had the schedule NU did, their records would look surprisingly similar to the Cats’. Couple NU’s rough schedule against the fact that expectations for the team are sky high, it can seem like the Cats have had a bad season. However, though they’ve lost some key games, we have to remember that NU has been ranked every single week. To get back to the elite tier where they belong, NU will just have to get back to work.

Waldman: This team has unquestionably had a difficult schedule; however, so did the Cats in 2014, when the team finished 14-7 and advanced to the semifinals of the NCAA tournament before falling to Maryland. In 2014, NU defeated six teams ranked in the top-12 in the nation, including a win over then-No.1 North Carolina. This season, the Cats have had a similar schedule, matching up against 10 top-16 teams already, and will face two more ranked opponents in Penn State and Ohio State. But NU has only come away with three wins against those ranked opponents. For the team to get back to its dominance, it is going to have to tighten up its defense, diversify its offense and secure its must-win games. The Cats could have been in a completely different situation had they capitalized on their opportunities in overtime against then-No.4 North Carolina and then-No.16 Penn, but now they are fighting to keep their tournament dreams alive. It’s too early to start to panic, but there is definitely cause to worry.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @clairechansen

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @dan_waldman