The Daily Northwestern

Lacrosse: Wildcats face 2 ranked opponents in 3 days this weekend

Christina Esposito looks for an opening. The senior attacker and the Wildcats face a daunting two-game stretch this weekend.

Christina Esposito looks for an opening. The senior attacker and the Wildcats face a daunting two-game stretch this weekend.

Daily file photo by Katie Pach

Daily file photo by Katie Pach

Christina Esposito looks for an opening. The senior attacker and the Wildcats face a daunting two-game stretch this weekend.

Dan Waldman, Assistant Sports Editor

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Midterms approach next week for Northwestern, but the Wildcats won’t just be tested in the classroom as they take on two top-20 opponents in three days.

No. 18 NU (7-6, 3-0 Big Ten) will host No. 6 Penn State (13-1, 3-0) on Thursday in a showdown featuring two teams unbeaten in conference play as well as a rematch of last year’s Big Ten Tournament semifinals. Just two days later, the Cats will turn their attention to No. 20 Duke (7-6) in a rematch of last year’s season opener.

NU split its season series against the Nittany Lions last year, losing 17-13 in the regular season and winning 9-6 in the Big Ten Tournament. Coach Kelly Amonte Hiller said this year’s Penn State team is similar to last year’s, which means the Cats will need to capitalize on every opportunity.

“They have a lot of weapons on the offensive end; they’re scrappy, and they move the ball well, so we have to play good team ball offense and defense,” Amonte Hiller said. “We have to be able to take advantage of the opportunities we have. That’s how we were able to beat them.”

When NU played the Nittany Lions in the regular season last year, the Cats couldn’t contain Penn State’s shooters, conceding 17 goals and letting their Big Ten foe control the tempo of the game. However, the teams’ second matchup went differently, as then-freshman goaltender Mallory Weisse commanded the defense, holding one of the hottest offenses in the country to just 9 goals.

Coming into Thursday’s contest, Weisse has held opponents to single-digit scoring in four of the team’s last five games. But the sophomore goaltender doesn’t take credit for the recent string of defensive dominance, instead crediting her defenders for shutting down scoring threats.

“They’re my best friends; I live with them,” Weisse said. “It’s a really great relationship, and it translates on the field pretty well. When I’m under pressure, they’re under pressure. We can see each other and count on each other when it comes down to it.”

But defense is only half the game, and NU will need its attacking trio of junior Shelby Fredericks and seniors Christina Esposito and Danita Stroup to work together to put the ball in the back of the net.

Last week against Ohio State, Stroup and Fredericks recorded career games, as the former scored a career-high 6 goals and the latter a career-high six points. The Cats scored 15 goals as a team, marking their highest goal total since early March.

Esposito said the team will have to come out with the same fire Thursday against one of the best defenses in the country.

“We just have to get after it and be really aggressive,” she said. “They’re not going to hold anything back. They want it, we knocked them out last year, but they’re 3-0, we’re 3-0, and this would put us in a really good spot for a good seed in the Big Ten.”

Following their game against Penn State, the Cats will have a short break before hosting the Blue Devils, against whom they opened last season with a win. Amonte Hiller, however, said all the focus in on Thursday’s game, and the team will wait to worry about Duke until Friday.

“Our main focus is this Penn State game; we have to take it one game at a time,” Amonte Hiller said. “We have no leisure to look ahead to anything because all we have is now and every game is so important to us.”

Twitter: @dan_waldman