First team All-Big Ten sophomore defender Samantha White continues to raise the level in her second season in Evanston. (Illustration by Lily Ogburn)
First team All-Big Ten sophomore defender Samantha White continues to raise the level in her second season in Evanston.

Illustration by Lily Ogburn

Lacrosse: The Maryland Magician: Samantha White’s dominant defensive play amplifies standout sophomore campaign

April 26, 2023

With the outright Big Ten regular season title on the line Saturday night, a sellout Martin Stadium was the place to be. Then-No. 2 Northwestern found itself firmly entrenched in a grueling defensive duel against then-No. 12 Maryland as temperatures continually plummeted. 

Though the nation’s highest scoring attack tallied three goals in under six minutes to kick off the contest, the Wildcats’ offensive firepower quickly simmered after its hot start. NU failed to find twine in a quarter for the first time all season. By halftime, the score settled at 4-4, and with an unexpected offensive stall, the onus shifted to the defense.

But even before halftime, sophomore defender Samantha White brought a much-needed tenacious edge from the contest’s opening draw, matching up against Maryland’s top attacker Libby May — renewing an old cross-town rivalry in Baltimore County, Maryland, between the Hereford High School and Dulaney High School graduates. 

“So many girls from my area go to Maryland,” White said. “I was like ‘no, forget that.’ I don’t want to go somewhere where everyone else goes. I want to build my own legacy here.”

White’s play in the first half set an early tone, holding May to just one goal and causing two turnovers. But with tensions running sky-high, White only elevated her intensity when the teams returned from the locker rooms.

The sophomore corralled two draws in the third frame, but the bulk of her work didn’t fill the statsheet. She tirelessly sealed off shooting angles, frustrating every opponent that dared cross her path while helping her team build a four-goal lead.

Coach Kelly Amonte Hiller leaned on the sophomore superstar to right an unsteady ship — and White delivered — as she’s done all season. In a battle that carried the greatest weight of the Cats’ regular-season slate, White shined brightest, registering a co-team high four draw controls, a game-high three caused turnovers and two ground balls in a winning effort. 

The defensive wizard beamed with pride as she approached the sideline, embracing her family — who flew in to catch the conference coronation. She played the game of her life minutes prior, proving once again why the first-team All-Big Ten honoree and two-time conference defensive player of the week is a staple in NU’s powerhouse pedigree.

“She has the greatest mix of competitiveness and fun,” Amonte Hiller said. “You see the smile on her face — she’s just a really fun kid. When you have the mix of that, it really makes magic.”

The Queen of the Court

Although the 2005 hit film “Wedding Crashers” popularized the phrase “crabcakes and football — that’s what Maryland does,” New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick once asserted that the Old Line State revolves around “crab and lacrosse.” White rose to the pinnacle of the crowded athletic ecosystem, first donning the black and red in high school, becoming the pride of her community.

While much of the lacrosse talent in metro Baltimore centers on the private schools of the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland, White attended public Dulaney High School as a three-sport varsity athlete, lettering in soccer, basketball and lacrosse for the Lions.

White said she gained a lot by forgoing the private school route. She focused on “the opportunity to lead other girls while playing” throughout high school.

“Every time she stepped foot on the field, she could change the momentum of the game,” Dulaney High School Varsity Lacrosse Coach Kristi Korrow said. “She was an incredible team player — but could also single handedly shift things and take the game in a different direction.”

Regardless of whether she was dribbling a soccer ball, shooting her patented jumper or unleashing a signature stick check, White commanded significant attention from opposing teams and coaches.

Her versatile skill set on the lacrosse field took root in her multisport prowess. She credits much of her continued success to her dedication on the hardwood. 

“My dad always says that basketball is just like lacrosse — and it really is,” White said. “Kelly always talks about how good my one (versus) one defense is, and I owe it all to basketball. Having — not the ability to play with the stick — but just shifting my feet and not letting the defender get past me, and it also has helped me with playing with different groups of people.”

NU’s defensive cornerstone dominated Baltimore County’s basketball courts, amassing 1,000 career points by her junior season — cementing the foundation for her current success. 

Being a 12-season athlete made White the ultimate competitor, as well as a selfless teammate, according to her former Dulaney High School Varsity basketball coach Jess Szymanski.

“She was probably the best player on my basketball team at the time, but (she) was in a really tough role,” Szymanski said. “The reality is you’re not competing with the person next to you to win every sprint — you’re the one that is supposed to lead. She never took a day off — she was an awesome kid to coach, and if there were multiple Sammys, I’d still be coaching.”

Building behind the scenes 

After the Cats fell 20-9 to then-No. 2 North Carolina in blowout fashion last March, Amonte Hiller shifted White into the starting lineup in hopes of avoiding a midseason slump. There, White provided a plug-and-play presence rooted in her blue-chip adaptability. From there, White remained a starter for the team’s final 15 games, featuring at attack, midfield and defense for NU, and winning the 2022 Big Ten Freshman of the Year. 

But rather than resting on her laurels, White went straight to work following the Final Four loss to the National Champion Tar Heels last May. 

With a scoring-sensation sibling in her older brother Justin White, who lights up scoreboards at Division II Rollins College, and a father always willing to help his kids thrive on and off the field, a sophomore slump was out of the cards for White. After all, shining on the field and in the classroom encapsulates the family’s mantra.

“I focused on my strength and conditioning a lot over the summer,” White said. “I worked with some trainers, trying to get my overall play better. I worked out with my dad almost every day, going to some random field just to shoot (and) get ground balls — to make sure I was keeping a stick in my hand.”

In addition to honing nearly every facet of her craft, White helped the next generation of lacrosse talent gain their footing, coaching for her childhood club: Sky Walkers. 

When White joined the club at a young age, her career trajectory shifted instantly. By high school, the do-it-all defender earned a spot among the nation’s top prospects, with Inside Lacrosse ranking her as the No. 8 recruit in the class of 2021.

She said Sky Walkers is “one of the best programs,” and allowed her to gain a new perspective on the sport. Additionally, it helped instill the fundamentals and will to work that prepared her for competing on a college level.  

“Teaching younger girls on my Sky Walkers team really helped too because I was then processing the information to them, which I feel always helps someone learn better,” White said. “If you know the information, telling it to someone else really helps you practice it in a different way.”

The sensational second stint

With All-Big Ten defender Ally Palermo graduating last season, many fans and pundits alike raised concerns about the future of the Cats’ defense. Skepticism intensified following NU’s opening loss to then-No. 5 Syracuse. Although NU secured a high-scoring win over then-No. 14 Notre Dame, the team’s defense conceded goals in bunches in its next contest.

Just three days later, Amonte Hiller’s squad faced another daunting challenge: a four-goal halftime deficit versus then-No. 3 Boston College. The veteran coach, who primarily handles the team’s defensive scheme, moved White back from midfield into her natural role as a lockdown defender in a crucial shift.

The Cats reaped instant benefits, grabbing a come-from-behind statement victory that propelled the team to its current 15-game winning streak. Meanwhile, Amonte Hiller minted the crucial piece to her shot stopping unit: a 5-foot-6 defender with remarkable coverage skills and the lethal mix of speed and awareness to turn a turnover into instant offense. 

“We really decided that the offense is so good, but the defense wants to be good too,” White said. “If we want to get to our high expectation goals — in order for us to be a championship team — our defense has to be strong too. We really focus on working for each other.”

The second-year star matched her 21-game point total from last season in her first 15 starts, making her presence known whenever she stepped on the field. White accumulated 22 ground balls, 24 caused turnovers and 44 draw controls in the 16-game regular-season slate.

Her efforts earned her a spot as one of 25 nominees for the 2023 women’s Tewaaraton Award. She is one of just three sophomores in contention for collegiate lacrosse’s highest honor.

For Amonte Hiller, a seven-time national champion coach, the stats and accolades don’t surprise her — instead they provide a testament to White’s relentless drive to improve.

“She’s a phenomenal player,” Amonte Hiller said. “She just has great poise. She’s a competitor, (and) she fights hard.”

However, through all of her personal and team successes this season — recently highlighted by NU’s first No. 1 ranking in more than 10 years Monday and a first team All-Big Ten nod for the sophomore virtuoso Wednesday — White and her teammates continue to focus on the future. 

The sophomore said the team’s extended hot streak means a lot, but many of the Cats’ goals are still in front of them. As she told her high school hoops coach, White held a major impetus for accepting a coveted role in the Lake Show. When Szymanski asked the customary “Why Northwestern” question, White gave the bluntest of retorts: “Because I want to win a damn championship.” 

“We talk a lot about how we’re not done yet,” White said. “We’re doing great — making great strides — but it won’t really matter until we get that Big Ten (Tournament) Championship, or that National Championship. So, I’m really excited to progress and just keep seeing that success on the field every game.”

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Twitter: @jakeepste1n

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