Lacrosse: Northwestern fans celebrate return to the NCAA Final


Charlotte Varnes/Daily Senior Staffer

Northwestern fans look to the field after the team’s victory on Sunday. Coach Kelly Amonte Hiller noted the crowd presence post-game.

Charlotte Varnes, Senior Staffer

CARY, N.C. — Northwestern lacrosse 2017-2020 alumni Sara Szynal (SESP ’20, Kellogg ’21) was on her way to attend a Taylor Swift concert on Friday in New Jersey as she watched her alma mater compete in the NCAA Semifinal. When the Wildcats won, she knew what she had to do.

“(I) bought plane tickets,” Szynal said. “They were expensive. I spare no expense for the Cats.”

Szynal was one among about 70 alumni in the crowd Sunday as NU defeated Boston College 18-6 en route to its first NCAA Championship since 2012. The alumni — many of whom rocked purple and name, image and likeness gear for current Cats’ players — joined a crowd of about two hundred fans and families under a tent outside of WakeMed Soccer Park to celebrate prior to the NCAA Final.

Before Sunday’s matchup, attendees gathered to catch up, talk NU lacrosse and enjoy a spread featuring foods ranging from donuts to spiked watermelon slices to bagels. The theme of the morning was purple – flags sporting the University’s logo, wigs and even body paint.

Rick White, father of sophomore defender Samantha White, carried a camera around the gathering, recording alumni spending time together before the game and the players jumping and dancing after. He called the fan support for the Cats’ “heartwarming” and said everyone should be proud of the fanbase.

With players being from all over the country, many fans flew or drove hours to make it to Cary.

Pat Gillespie, father of senior defender Hannah Gillespie, drove seven hours from Philadelphia to the Championship site. He said the Cats’ fans’ dedication to traveling sets them apart.

“People believe in it,” Gillespie said. “They love the commitment. They appreciate the hard work.”

The positive energy from the pre-game gathering carried into the stands at WakeMed Soccer Park on Sunday. Throughout the game, cheers of “let’s go cats” and “C-A-T-S” broke out. Fans jumped and clapped, forming a sea of purple above the NU bench.

After the game ended, the crowd couldn’t stop cheering. Everything was worth celebrating, from players receiving their individual trophies to the cutting down of nets.

The fan presence was on coach Kelly Amonte Hiller’s mind, too.

“What a group of families,” Amonte Hiller said. “What support we had from fans and alumni — you could feel it from the beginning of the game.”

Many of the alumni at Sunday’s matchup were members of the teams that fell in the NCAA Semifinal the past three years. Szynal said she especially feels the 2019 loss, which came against Maryland, and marked a turning point for the program. The Cats have made every Championship Weekend since that season.

Gillespie has attended the NCAA Semifinal in 2021, 2022 and 2023. He called last year’s loss a “hard one,” and said the 2023 trip to Cary had the makings of a business trip following that loss.

NU lacrosse alumni Jill Girardi (Communication ’21, School of Professional Studies ’22 ), who set the single-season draws record in 2022, played in three NCAA Semifinal losses while at NU. Now coaching at Coastal Carolina, Girardi drove to Cary to watch the Cats compete.

She said recent NU teams have had “so much potential,” but haven’t been able to advance to the NCAA Final. It was awesome of NU to make it to Championship Sunday this year, she said, and the exciting crowd added to the fun.

“It’s all just a big family here,” Girardi said. “Everyone knows everyone, everyone’s talking. It’s so fun…Cats by a million.”

Jake Epstein contributed reporting.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @charvarnes11

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