For the first time in two years, Northwestern will compete in the NCAA Division I Women’s Lacrosse Championship.
The No. 2 Wildcats (13-0, 11-0 Big Ten) will return to postseason play against No. 15 Denver on Sunday at Lanny and Sharon Martin Family Stadium. NU earned the No. 2 seed and an opening round bye, sending it straight to Sunday’s second round.
Senior attacker and team captain Lauren Gilbert said the Cats were “really happy” with their seeding, especially given the Big Ten’s conference-only schedule, but the ranking isn’t their sole focus heading into the postseason.
“We’re really excited, but at the end of the day, it’s just a number,” Gilbert said. “We put ourselves in a great position to make it all the way and that’s what I’m most excited about.”
In addition to the first-round bye, NU gained another advantage: playing at home. Graduate student attacker Lindsey McKone said playing in Evanston means “everything,” and will be central to setting the team up for success throughout the postseason.
This is the first time NU will face the Pioneers since 2009.
Denver made its fifth NCAA tournament appearance Friday against Stanford under coach Liza Kelly. Under Kelly’s guidance, the Pioneers have remained in the IWLCA Poll’s Top 20 rankings for Division I Women’s Lacrosse.
Denver went undefeated in the Big East Conference leading in points per game, assists per game and caused turnovers. Senior attacker Bea Behrins, who ranks first in the program with 51 goals, leads the Pioneers’ offense alongside senior attacker Hannah Liddy, who made 46 assists over the season. Heading into Sunday, Denver shoots an average of 14.76 goals per game while the Cats’ shoot an average of 20.62 goals per game.
Throughout the year, NU players and coach Kelly Amonte Hiller have emphasized looking internally instead of focusing on opponents. Amonte Hiller said this mindset helped the Cats prepare over the past week, since they did not know their opponent until Friday evening. She said as long as the team looks internally, they will place themselves “in a great position for success.”
“We’re focusing on the little things that have gotten us to this point and what we need to execute,” Amonte Hiller said.
Junior attacker Izzy Scane echoed Hiller’s sentiments, saying that the squad would focus on the “little things” this week. In order to prepare for Denver, NU players and coaches want to get a quick start from the draw circle, something Amonte Hiller said the Cats’ struggled at first with in the Big Ten Championship game.
McKone added they will also focus on their backer defense, a scheme the Pioneers also used against Stanford Friday. She said the team prefers this style, since it allows them to work better together and communicate off ball.
Sunday marks the first time the Cats will face a non-conference opponent in 2021. Gilbert said NU proved it could dominate the Big Ten, but the team has a “much bigger statement to make” when competing against non-conference teams during the NCAA Tournament.
“We’re seeing some skepticism in terms of what we’re going to do outside of the Big Ten,” Gilbert said. “We want to put all that to rest and really focus on ourselves.”
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