Lacrosse: ‘A generational player’: Madison Taylor’s meteoric rise to superstardom
April 17, 2023
Feb. 11 marked the dawn of a new era: the start of a season for then-No. 4 Northwestern. The fresh start meant another chance at overcoming the Final Four woes that had plagued the team’s past three campaigns, blocking it from reaching the National Championship for more than 10 years.
While many familiar faces returned this year, including graduate student attacker and Tewaaraton Award front runner Izzy Scane, the Wildcats still had holes to fill. The losses of stars like Lauren Gilbert, Jill Girardi and Ally Palermo meant NU needed new firepower to make it over the long-lasting hump.
For freshman midfielder Madison Taylor, this moment proved years in the making. The Long Island product began playing lacrosse in second grade and competed at the highest youth levels before joining the Lake Show, but few foresaw her rapid rise to the pinnacle of the college game.
Less than two minutes into the Cats’ first contest of the year against then-No. 5 Syracuse — one of the nation’s top defenses — Taylor fired a rocket into the top right corner of the cage for NU’s first goal of the season.
“That relief when you get that first goal — and for that to happen so quickly — gave me a boost of momentum and just kept pushing me through the whole game,” Taylor said.
Taylor’s dazzling debut only strengthened from there. The first-year solidified any scorer’s dream with a hat trick in her first game, burying a bounce shot in the second quarter and a free-position in the third to tie the contest at nine apiece.
Trailing by two-scores in the final frame, Taylor called her own number once more in JMA Wireless Dome, unleashing a left-handed laser for her fourth goal of the day. Eight minutes later, she beat Syracuse’s Delaney Sweitzer on another perfectly executed bouncer to convert her fifth tally.
“It was surreal,” Taylor said. “Once the whistle blew, it was kind of a blur from there. It all happened so quickly.”
While the Cats ultimately came up a goal shy in a 16-15 thriller, Taylor made a staunch statement of her intent in a wondrous individual effort, tying Scane with five goals to lead the way for NU and sending shockwaves throughout the collegiate lacrosse landscape. The five-point performance earned the freshman midfielder her first Big Ten Freshman of the Week nod.
With Taylor’s first collegiate accolade achieved, a new star beamed the purple and white, illuminating the trajectory of NU’s historic program.
“She’s been ready for this moment her entire life,” former Wantagh High School coach Robyn Rooney said. “She’s built for this stage.”
The Hometown Hero
Long before she arrived in Evanston, Taylor was a quiet high school freshman yearning for a coveted spot on the Wantagh High School Varsity lacrosse squad. But like at college, she made quite the first impression on her teammates and coaches.
Rooney immediately took notice of the new kid, feeling that she was “special from day one.”
“I didn’t think she was a freshman,” Rooney said. “You see a kid walk on the field with that kind of confidence and that size and maturity — she was incredible. You see her in person, and she looks like an All-American.”
With such a weapon at her disposal, Rooney said she played Taylor “every minute of every game” at midfield.
Taylor soon became the focal point of a highly ranked Warriors’ team, facing the gauntlet of Long Island lacrosse, which Chelsea Karr, Taylor’s assistant coach at Wantagh, called “a competition where every single game is like the county championship.”
Taylor’s lightning speed and elite athleticism separated her from the talented Long Island pack, pushing the Warriors into the state championship conversation each of her high school seasons. Rooney said Taylor’s diverse skillset meant the team looked to her whenever it needed a spark.
“She was top three on Long Island in points every season that she played, (and) she was popping ground balls every season,” Rooney said. “She was a lockdown defender, tasked with winning the draw, locking down the (opposing) team’s best player and scoring most of our goals every single game — and she did it every single game.”
Taylor’s do-it-all presence drew double-teams whenever she stepped on the field. But she’d still be able to push through whatever the opposition threw at her.
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic canceling her sophomore season, the midfield stalwart produced video game numbers in her three-year high school career. Taylor recorded 173 goals, 79 assists and 328 draw controls. In her senior season alone, Taylor played a major two-way presence, scooping 74 ground balls, causing 38 turnovers and corralling 145 draws. During her last dance, the team captain led Wantagh to a conference title.
In addition to earning All-American honors in her junior and senior seasons, Taylor shone on the soccer pitch and the hardwood, earning All-County honors in both soccer and basketball.
“She’s the best athlete I’ve ever witnessed in my entire life — and the best lacrosse player I’ve ever coached (or) played against,” Rooney said. “I played against Northwestern in college (with Connecticut) and I played against Kristen Kjellman. To me (Taylor) is number one.”
A legendary mentor
Even before high school, Taylor embarked on the road to success with greatness by her side. In middle school, Taylor joined the Long Island Top Guns 2022 Black team, coached by Hofstra head coach, three-time national champion and Tewaaraton Award winner Shannon Smith — one of the most prolific scorers in NU history.
The team became one of the top ranked club outfits in the country, competing with national juggernauts such as Sky Walkers, M&D, Florida Select and Hero’s.
It was at this Long Island-based club that Taylor developed her tenacious work ethic and laid the groundwork to become a day-one starter at a perennial powerhouse.
“(Smith) was the one who made me work hard in lacrosse,” Taylor said. “There were times where (as) a lefty she was like, ‘You gotta go righty all practice.’ She taught me to control what I can control, and that’s really stuck with me.”
Taylor formed a midfield line with Dartmouth’s Catherine Erb and Hofstra’s Nikki Mennella that Smith counted on in crunch time. All three eclipsed the 20-goal mark this season, becoming lethal markswomen in their inaugural campaigns.
Taylor said playing alongside some of the top recruits in the country — at a club that’s produced elite talent like Syracuse standout attacker Emma Ward, Maryland attacker Chrissy Thomas and Florida midfielder Emily Heller — pushed her to constantly compete and strive for improvement.
Competing against Long Island’s top talents every day in practice for a coach that “pushed them hard” taught Taylor not to take any plays off.
“I remember pulling (Taylor) over to the sideline and dumping a cooler of water on her head to cool her off,” Smith said. “She was just a force on the field, had a willpower to win and a knack for scoring goals — (she’s a) tremendous dodger and just super athletic.”
The Big Ten Freshman of the Year Favorite
Taylor — ranked outside of the Inside Lacrosse Top 50 recruits in the 2022 class — appeared as a surprise addition to coach Kelly Amonte Hiller’s starting lineup for some, but the freshman wasted no time proving she belonged. Her top-drawer play versus Syracuse was no flash in the pan, but rather a snippet of what was to come.
The first-year has racked up 38 goals, 16 assists, 24 ground balls, 45 draw controls and the seventh-most points per game in the Big Ten. But, much of her impact isn’t even reflected in the stat sheet. The Wantagh product possesses all the intangibles and does the little things necessary to win games — whether that be pressuring opponents on the ride or finding teammates for unselfish passes.
Smith said she never doubted the freshman midfielder “would be ready to step in” to make an instant impact.
“She’s got a body build of not a typical freshman in college — she’s super strong,” Smith said. “She’s a thoroughbred. As the game goes on, she only continues to get better, stronger and faster.”
After putting the nation on notice, the accolades soon piled up for the freshman phenom. Taylor garnered a conference record of eight Big Ten Freshman of the Week awards and became the first freshman to earn a spot on the Tewaaraton Award Watch List this year. She’s tallied a point in every game this season — only failing to score a goal in a lone matchup against then-No. 4 Stony Brook.
But Taylor and her teammates still have some unfinished business. There’s one trophy that stands tall above the rest.
“Winning a national championship — that’s always the goal,” Taylor said. “We just got to keep working (and) focusing on each next game.”
With a regular season title push coming to a close, and Taylor raising the level whenever she steps on the field, the Cats carry heaps of momentum into postseason play.
As Amonte Hiller’s team gears up for a run at an eighth national championship, NU will lean on Taylor heavily — as she’s been throughout her high school and club careers. Rooney said she’s sure NU’s sensational starlet will shine in the spotlight.
“She’s going to be an All American and a Tewaraaton finalist, if not a Tewaraaton winner,” Rooney said. “They’re gonna win a national championship, either this year, next year or the year after that — and largely in part to her. She’ll be playing for Team USA and coaching somewhere when she graduates. She’s a generational player.”
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