First-team All-Big Ten midfielder Samantha Smith took No. 1 Northwestern’s opening draw this season and never looked back. Photos courtesy of Northwestern Athletics (Illustration by Shveta Shah)
First-team All-Big Ten midfielder Samantha Smith took No. 1 Northwestern’s opening draw this season and never looked back. Photos courtesy of Northwestern Athletics

Illustration by Shveta Shah

Lacrosse: ‘The hardest shot in the Bay Area’: Samantha Smith’s journey to No. 1 Northwestern’s draw command

May 11, 2023

For the first time in nearly three months, No. 1 Northwestern’s back was against the wall. In the Big Ten Tournament championship on May 6 against historic powerhouse No. 10 Maryland, NU trailed 5-4 with six minutes remaining before halftime. 

Unable to click on all cylinders, the Wildcats had faltered in their typical stout play in the draw circle, facing a 9-2 disadvantage on draw controls. Matched up with the Terrapins’ veteran Big Ten Midfielder of the Year Shaylan Ahearn, sophomore midfielder Samantha Smith had her hands full. 

But as a California native competing in a predominantly East Coast sport, Samantha Smith has seldom shied away from an uphill battle. 

In need of a spark to shift the contest’s momentum, coach Kelly Amonte Hiller temporarily moved sophomore midfielder Serafina DeMunno into the draw circle, while Samantha Smith rotated on and off the field as a wing. But as the game went on, Samantha Smith’s sturdy two-way presence and mental fortitude played a crucial role in NU clinching a conference tournament title and its first No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament since 2009.

“I talked to Sam and said, ‘Settle down, we’re gonna make plays,’” Amonte Hiller said. “She’s really tough, and she did (just) that.”

Coming out of halftime with a one-goal advantage, Samantha Smith regained her position in the circle, emphasizing Amonte Hiller’s trust in her sophomore midfield stalwart. That trust immediately paid dividends, as she boxed out her opponents to nab the half’s opening draw.

Putting the first half far in the rearview mirror, Samantha Smith and her teammates caught fire from the circle. She tallied four draw controls in the third quarter alone, while the Cats corralled all but one in the frame, sealing an 11-8 lead heading into the final quarter.

“We talk a lot about having a 15-second memory, and as a middie, it’s definitely necessary,” Samantha Smith said. “If I turn the ball over or if the offense doesn’t have a great play, I have to run back on defense and be locked in. It’s really important to have a reset.”

Less than a minute into the fourth quarter, Samantha Smith collected the ball deep in her team’s zone and turned on the burners on the clear. After  receiving the ball in the offensive zone, the midfielder sidestepped her way inside, wound up and unleashed a missile into the top-right corner for her 15th goal of the season.

Seconds later, she pulled down the ensuing draw that eventually found its way to graduate student attacker Hailey Rhatigan, who buried the finish.

The Cats then cruised to their third Big Ten Tournament title, and Samantha Smith’s gritty turnaround helped right the ship en route to a 14-9 victory. After rallying the troops in the circle and silencing the Terrapins on a statement sidearm snipe, Samantha Smith’s versatile impact made donning the champion’s getup a testament to how far she’d come. 

The California kid

When Samantha Smith first picked up a lacrosse stick at five years old, her family didn’t know she held the proverbial key to her future in the palm of her hand. 

Growing up in Mill Valley, California, she resided far from the typical hotbeds of lacrosse talent. She played sports like soccer and basketball in elementary school — not joining an organized travel lacrosse team until after fifth grade.

“She was always smiling and loved to run around in the field,” Mike Smith, her father, said. “It was evident that if she wanted to do it, she was going to be good enough.”

Entering middle school, Samantha Smith joined her local club team, the Southern Marin Lacrosse Club. She rapidly rose to the cream of the crop, representing her town as the star of the Wolfpack. 

Her coach, Club Girls Director Mary Beth Todd, immediately plugged Samantha Smith into the midfield — a spot where she’d become firmly entrenched for years to come.

“She was just so physically strong and powerful,” Todd said. “She loves to compete; it fuels her. She loves putting herself out there and winning every ground ball and every draw to set our team up for success. When you’re coaching seventh and eighth grade girls, they’re not all wired that way.”

In the high-octane role, Samantha Smith shined for her hometown and raised her entire team’s level. Soon after, the time arrived for her to make her presence known nationally.

She attended lacrosse camps headed by the Tenacity Project, a nonprofit organization founded by former California Berkeley coach and Tewaaraton finalist Theresa Sherry geared toward female empowerment, throughout middle school. But as she entered high school, the midfielder made the jump to Tenacity Elite’s club ranks. 

There, Samantha Smith shared a stage with the region’s elite, including the Cats’ speedy sophomore midfielder Emerson Bohlig. Sherry said Smith possessed a nose for the ball and a hyper-focused demeanor once the game started. 

“Emerson was probably the fastest on the team, and Sam would often take the draws,” Sherry said. “Similar to her role at Northwestern, (Samantha Smith) was playing both directions. She was a good defender for us and was a firepower as far as goalscoring.”

The team competed against top prospects around the country in summer tournaments, gaining much-needed exposure to college coaches and allowing Samantha Smith to prove her pedigree as one of the nation’s best midfielders. As a result, she earned the No. 23 rank in Inside Lacrosse’s Class of 2021 database. 

The Under Armour High School All-American caught the attention of Amonte Hiller’s staff and committed to NU in October of her junior year — Bohlig would soon follow.

A family affair

When Mike Smith and his brother David Smith lined up together for the Virginia’s men’s lacrosse team, the pair reached the 1988 Final Four. Meanwhile, Samantha Smith’s mother, Karen Smith, starred on the Cavaliers’ track and field team.

After Samantha Smith’s freshman year at Tamalpais High School, her father stepped in to coach his daughter and the varsity lacrosse team, while her mother coached the junior varsity squad. 

“He’s always been my hero and my lacrosse mentor,” Samantha Smith said. “To have him coach me and my teammates to really make that program better was incredible.”

In her first season playing under her father, Samantha Smith earned first-team all-conference honors, cementing her place among the Bay Area’s best. Mike Smith said she was “the solution” to any problem her team encountered, providing offensive prowess and measured contributions on nearly every blade of grass.

Former Tufts Assistant Coach Kathryn DeLillio, who worked with Samantha Smith in the summers, saw the improvement in her game at the high school level. She said the midfielder’s skill and work rate appeared on full display the second the whistle blew. 

“She had the hardest shot in the Bay Area,” DeLillio said. “She would get up on the free position line, take one step and just completely rip it.”

But when it came time to take the field with her younger sister, Madison, COVID-19 canceled the 2020 lacrosse season — delaying the public emergence of a second dominant Smith duo.

Rather than sulking about the lost season, the pair sharpened their craft together. 

“Coming from California, where there’s not a lot of lacrosse, it’s always been hard to find people to play with,” Samantha Smith said. “Madi and I would (be) in our backyard passing the ball back and forth. We just got astronomically better, (especially) our stick skills.”

Mike Smith said the sisters became far closer during lockdown, as they’d constantly push each other to improve. He noted that though they would quarrel about wearing each other’s sweatshirts and sweaters, the Smith sisters “morphed into best buddies.”

Despite prospects of a high school season together appearing bleak, Samantha and Madison Smith took any opportunity to compete. For the first time in years, they weren’t training for a team effort or a shot at a championship — the girls’ drive was the impetus for their work.

“They would jump 8-foot fences every day to get on the fields,” Mike Smith said. 

A year later, all fall, winter and spring sports began play simultaneously in their high school conference, but Madison missed the early-season slate with an injury. She’d return later on, but the sisters only took the field together for a few games.

However, the cherished opportunity to play together appears far from over. The duo will suit up together next spring in Evanston, as Madison followed in Samantha Smith’s footsteps by committing to NU in October 2021. More than 35 years after the elder Smith brothers charged through Charlottesville, Virginia, and embarked on a Final Four run, Madison Smith’s commitment to the Cats means the Smith sisters will rumble through Big Ten midfield units for the Lake Show.

“I definitely will have some competition on the draw — I’ve taught her everything she knows,” Samantha Smith said. “She’ll be coming in with all my tricks, and it should be fun to see how we can work together on the draw and help each other grow. She’s an incredible player, and her shot is faster than mine.”

Taking the reins from a program legend

As midfielder Jill Girardi departed NU in 2022, she took along her mainstay on the draw team — highlighted by 62 points and 183 draw controls during her final season. With such massive production lost to graduation, Amonte Hiller needed several players to step up and help mitigate Girardi’s exit.

Playing behind Girardi her freshman year, Samantha Smith logged just five starts in her first season for the Cats. Yet she tallied 34 draw controls and won Big Ten Freshman of the Week on two occasions — proving her preparedness to succeed her All-American predecessor. She said competing against Girardi and midfielder Brennan Dwyer every day in practice proved instrumental to her development.

“I definitely looked up to Jill last year, (and) she helped me a lot — just taking (the draw) against her helped me learn new things,” Samantha Smith said. “Kelly and the whole draw team have taught me so much to become the best draw taker I could be.”

With NU’s primary draw position up for grabs, Samantha Smith enlisted the help of a familiar training partner: Madison, then a rising high school senior who stepped into Samantha Smith’s draw taker role upon her graduation.

The current and future Cats trained for countless hours throughout the summer, allowing Samantha Smith to refine her draw skills by the time she arrived back on campus in the fall.

When the Cats took on Syracuse in their season opener Feb. 11, Samantha Smith set out to the midfield line to take the campaign’s opening draw. The move was one she said she could’ve hardly foreseen.

“In high school, I was the draw taker, but I never was like, ‘Oh I’m going to be the draw taker at Northwestern,’” Samantha Smith said. “It’s something I would never imagine, but it’s amazing.”

After securing nine draw controls in the team’s season opener, the midfielder continued to deliver in the circle. Playing as a true two-way midfielder, much of her hustle and tenacity wasn’t reflected in the stat sheet. Still, Samantha Smith’s 89 regular-season draw controls earned her first-team All-Big Ten Honors.

Through 18 games, Samantha Smith has scored 15 goals, dished out six assists and secured 102 draw controls, earning a USA Lacrosse Magazine third-team All-American nod Monday.

The sophomore standout said she goes out on the field striving to make her team proud, day in and day out. 

And each time she commands the midfield and puts on draw control clinics, Samantha Smith shows kids from nontraditional lacrosse areas that they, too, can star at the sport’s highest level, Sherry said.

“For Sam — beyond (college) — if she wants to play pro or internationally, it’s all possible for her,” Sherry said. “She’s a special player.”

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Twitter: @jakeepste1n

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