Lacrosse: Epstein: No. 1 Northwestern shone brightest on the biggest stage


Photo courtesy of Northwestern Athletics

Coach Kelly Amonte Hiller talks to her team. Amonte Hiller won her eighth national title as a coach Sunday.

Jake Epstein, Assistant Sports Editor

CARY, N.C. — Upon arriving at WakeMed Soccer Park on Sunday Morning, No. 1 Northwestern filled the misty air with an aura of confidence and swagger, as if this was truly a team of destiny.

“We said at the beginning of the fall, ‘The most important thing is going to be believing,’” coach Kelly Amonte Hiller said. “We gotta believe, and I think it showed out there today.”

The Wildcats (21-1, 6-0 Big Ten) toppled the bulk of the nation’s elite this season, but one final familiar foe stood in the way of Amonte Hiller’s team winning its first national title in 11 years: coach Acacia Walker-Weinstein and No. 3 Boston College.

Less than 24 hours before the game, Amonte Hiller said she expected it would be a fight.

Instead, NU proved the gap between itself and the rest of the pack stretched wider than most had anticipated. Not only did the Cats grab their 21st consecutive victory, but they ran away with an 18-6 rout, silencing their Chestnut Hill challengers.

Everything clicked for the Cats. The Eagles (19-4, 8-1 ACC) could merely watch NU fly by en route to its eighth national championship.

As they’d done all season long, graduate student attacker Izzy Scane and senior attacker Erin Coykendall led the charge from the front. With their teammates feeding off the duo’s energy and tenacity, NU turned in its most complete performance of the season at the perfect moment.

“Can’t go wrong when you have newcomers like (graduate student attacker) Hailey Rhatigan and (freshman attacker) Madison Taylor,” Amonte Hiller said. “It was an unreal effort. I’m so proud of my (defense) — they were spectacular this weekend.”

Taylor’s four-goal national-championship display puts her in the conversation for most impactful first-years in the sport’s history.

Add in Rhatigan’s hat trick to go along with the eight Cats who found the scoresheet, and it appears NU’s attack performed with a business-as-usual mentality — regardless of the lofty national championship stage.

But, the team’s No. 1 scoring offense couldn’t have completed its championship dreams without its defensive backing. As it did throughout the postseason, the Cats’ defense refused to relent an inch. 

Amonte Hiller laid the building blocks of her defensive unit when she shifted sophomore defender Samantha White back from the midfield in February, a move that ultimately helped clinch a national championship. 

Beyond stuffing the statsheet with seven draw controls, six ground balls, three caused turnovers and a goal, White’s workrate appeared second to none. Every time she hit the deck, the sophomore superstar bounced right back up and kept running. 

The Cats conceded 14 goals against the Eagles in February, but this time, Boston College put up zero scores in the first 15 minutes Sunday and didn’t fare far better for the rest of the matchup.

It took total commitment from the entire team to neutralize highflying stars like attacker Jenn Medjid and midfielder Belle Smith, but NU was more than up for the challenge.

“Our defense has really been building,” Amonte Hiller said. “They have a lot of pride in what they’re doing.”

Although the draw unit had its fair share of bumps on the road to Cary, White and sophomore midfielder Samantha Smith took complete command of the possession game in the second half. The pair’s efforts resulted in a 7-0 third quarter draw split and a 5-3 advantage in the fourth.

Amonte Hiller said she knew the duo would put forth a solid performance before the contest began.

“Sam and Sammy are best of friends,” Amonte Hiller said. “They both had an incredible impact on the game today.”

However, no one facet of the group can be credited with today’s victory, it was once again a collective effort. Every player — both on and off the field — brought the energy, and they reaped the rewards, cutting down the nets and hoisting the ultimate prize.

The question now becomes: “What now?”

The answer: With Scane confirmed to come back for one last dance, plenty of key returners slotting right back into the starting lineup and a young core of superstars ready to step up to the next level, the road to Cary 2024 runs through Evanston.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @jakeepste1n

Related Stories:

Lacrosse: Varnes: With NCAA Final victory, Northwestern lacrosse shows dreams really do come true

Lacrosse: No. 1 Northwestern saves best for last, cruises to eighth national title

Rapid Recap: Northwestern 18, Boston College 6