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


Photo courtesy of Northwestern Athletics

Graduate student attacker Hailey Rhatigan hoists the national championship trophy as her teammates celebrate. Rhatigan scored a hat trick against Boston College on Sunday.

Jake Epstein, Assistant Sports Editor

CARY, N.C. — Just over 4,000 days ago, coach Kelly Amonte Hiller lifted the national championship trophy in Stony Brook, New York. The program she had built from rock bottom stood at the summit for the seventh time in eight years, with every indication of more titles to come. 

But, the program walloped into a wall, and became plagued by three consecutive Final Four falls in heartbreaking fashion, prompting Amonte Hiller to ponder what fueled the team’s decade of dominance. 

“I was pretty hard on myself, taking a lot of ownership,” Amonte Hiller said. “I was putting too (many) expectations on myself and on the team. It got to the point where I just said ‘I’m hitting the reset button — completely resetting this program and going back to how it started in 2005.’”

More than 11 years since the program dominated the national landscape, No. 1 Northwestern possessed a prime opportunity to claw its way back against No. 3 Boston College, who the team toppled in 15-14 comeback fashion in February.

Both squads stood seconds away from cementing their legacies in a tussle of two top-three teams, as the pregame proceedings’ smoke soared into the soaked skies Sunday. However, the Eagles (19-4, 8-1 ACC) only managed to maintain a sense of parity for mere moments, as the Wildcats (21-1, 6-0 Big Ten) peaked at pristine time in an 18-6 downpour on a rainy championship day.

While Boston College collected the opening draw, the Cats piled on the pressure from the first whistle. Less than two minutes into the game, freshman attacker Madison Taylor earned an eight-meter opportunity, and senior attacker Erin Coykendall, the team’s “coach on the field,” rushed over to the first-year phenom.

“Erin came up to me and was like, ‘You got this — they’re not sliding on you,’” Taylor said.

Four minutes after she buried the national championship’s first goal, Taylor netted a second free-position shot, putting NU in front 2-0. 

While graduate student goalkeeper Molly Laliberty, sophomore defender Samantha White and the Cats’ defense sealed off any glimpse of an Eagle opportunity throughout the first quarter, graduate student attacker Hailey Rhatigan ripped an unassisted tally beyond Boston College goalkeeper Shea Dolce in the closing minute of the first period.

However, entering the second quarter, the Eagles appeared to conjure a comeback, converting a pair of goals in just 37 seconds to cut the deficit to 3-2. 

As quickly as Boston College brought the game back within reach, the Cats canceled out the Eagle advance, notching three consecutive scores courtesy of Rhatigan and graduate student attacker Izzy Scane to carry a 6-2 lead into halftime.

“Even when things didn’t go exactly the way we wanted them to go, everybody had each other’s back,” Amonte Hiller said.

Although the half-time intermission granted both teams a chance to regroup, NU never relinquished its drive. 

Taylor completed her hat trick just 48 seconds into the third quarter, and sophomore midfielder Emerson Bohlig hit a spin cycle, sending her defender slipping to the surface on a tally to extend NU’s advantage to 8-2. After Boston College attacker Kayla Martello cut the lead to five, the Cats launched another 3-0 run.

In the last minute of the third quarter, Eagle midfielder Belle Smith grabbed her second goal of the day, still leaving her team with a mountain to climb in the final frame — down 11-4.

However, another NU scoring avalanche crafted an insurmountable maneuver. Coykendall drew first blood in the fourth quarter, before Scane swiped the ball in a dangerous area and registered her 99th goal of the season and 288th career tally — both of which marked program records.

“It’s not something I’ve paid much or any attention to,” Scane said. “The focus was on winning a national championship.”

With sophomore midfielder Samantha Smith responding to Boston College attacker Jenn Medjid’s score and dominating the draw alongside White, victory soon became a reality.

Coykendall activated the running clock as the game ticked below the six minute mark, and the stadium erupted into a purple pandemonium. Players danced down the sideline, as White got in on the scoring fun for her fifth goal of the season.

After Martello collected a consolation conversion, Coykendall launched a long-range bouncer into the net, and Rhatigan beat the buzzer to sweeten a storied collegiate career.

Not only had the Cats reached the top of the lacrosse world, but they presented an 18-6 exclamation point on a dream campaign. With Scane earning tournament Most Outstanding Player honors, and likely well on her way to a Tewaaraton Award, the attacker and her teammates cut down the net, carving their own slice of history.

“It’s been a long and amazing process,” Scane said. “I’ve been at Northwestern for the last five years, and I’ve loved every moment of it. I’ve seen the ups and downs of this program … It’s just a game and for it to finally click and finally happen, I just can’t explain the emotion behind it.”

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Twitter: @jakeepste1n

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