Lacrosse: Varnes: No. 1 Northwestern’s defense clicking ahead of NCAA semifinal


Daily file photo by Seeger Gray

Sophomore defender Samantha White runs down the field. White is one among several defenders paving the way for the Wildcats’ NCAA semifinal run.

Charlotte Varnes, Senior Staffer

Competing against then-No. 1 North Carolina in mid-March, Northwestern’s defense played with ease. 

Players were aggressive in transition and honed in on defense, causing turnovers to keep the Tar Heels at arm’s length. Graduate student goalkeeper Molly Laliberty was a force in the cage, recording seven saves in the second half alone to stymie North Carolina’s attempted comeback. 

The contest represented the best of what NU’s defense has to offer. Laliberty felt it was an important moment of cohesion for her unit. 

“The UNC game was a time where we really executed the game plan and had fun with it,” Laliberty said. “We weren’t even thinking about the scoreboard or mistakes, or what happened on the last play. It was about working together on the next play. Clearly, that paid off.”

The Wildcats’ (19-1, 6-0 Big Ten) matchup against the Tar Heels is an example of the team’s stellar defensive displays this season. The team’s 12th-ranked scoring defense helped power its Final Four run. After several seasons of inconsistent play on the defensive end, the Cats finally found stability in protecting their cage.

Yes, this is the team’s fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament semifinal run. Former star players like Ally Palermo and Madison Doucette headlined those campaigns.

But, in those season’s biggest moments, NU’s defense struggled. The Cats conceded nine fourth quarter goals to North Carolina in the 2022 NCAA semifinal, paving the way for a seemingly unbelievable loss. And a year before that, Syracuse scored 21 goals — their highest total of the season — against NU in the 2021 NCAA semifinal. 

This season, though, the Wildcat defense hasn’t wavered in tough moments. Rather, it embraced the challenge. 

Take NU’s nail-biting 8-7 victory against Michigan in the NCAA second round. As the Cats’ attack stumbled, its defense held strong. Who scored the game-winning goal? Junior defender Carleigh Mahoney — who couldn’t find a bigger occasion to register her first goal of the campaign. How many turnovers did the Wildcat defense record as it mounted a second half comeback? Nine. 

Coach Kelly Amonte Hiller has noted Laliberty’s elevated play in tough scenarios several times throughout the season. 

“Molly has been phenomenal,” Amonte Hiller told reporters after the Loyola Maryland matchup. “She’s really stepped up. She loves the big moments. That’s when she plays her best.”

Beyond her defensive prowess, Laliberty is simply fun to watch. She consistently hyped up the home crowd throughout the season, waving her arms and jumping up and down. She’s made seemingly impossible saves at times, too, like when she dropped into a near-split while making a save against No. 8 Loyola Maryland last weekend. 

A group of battle-tested veterans also played vital roles in bolstering the unit’s play. Dynamic, dialed-in defenders like junior Kendall Halpern, sophomore Samantha White and senior midfielder Jane Hansen have proved essential to the Wildcats’ NCAA semifinal run. The trio have combined for 73 of NU’s 158 caused turnovers this season, and they excel at playing an active, aggressive zone defense. 

Even the Cats’ attackers have gotten in on the action. Graduate student attacker Izzy Scane ranks fifth on the team with 10 caused turnovers, and freshman attacker Madison Taylor ranks seventh with eight. Scane and Taylor, among other attackers, have been a joy to watch in transition. They’re aggressive and gritty and seem like they could play defense as well as they attack the cage.

Laliberty believes the Cats’ offensive prowess has strengthened their defense, too. 

“This team is heralded as an offensive powerhouse,” Laliberty said. “But I think we’ve gotten the opportunity to play against the best attackers in the country every day in practice. That makes us better as well.” 

As NU readies to play Denver on Friday, perhaps the biggest storyline is NU’s No. 1 scoring offense versus the Pioneers’ No. 1 scoring defense. But don’t forget to keep an eye on Laliberty and her unit. The Cats wouldn’t be in the NCAA semifinal without them. 

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @charvarnes11

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