Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern


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Lacrosse: No. 1 Northwestern chases ninth national title

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Daily file photo by Micah Sandy
Northwestern celebrates a goal against Syracuse last Saturday.

Just 106 days separate early February’s season-opening Saturday slate and the 2024 national champion’s coronation in Cary, North Carolina. During the three-month span that culminates within WakeMed Soccer Park’s gated greenery, scintillating surprise sensations will capture headlines, giants will fall and only one team will end its quest at the sport’s summit.

After knocking off No. 5 Syracuse 18-15 last Saturday, No. 1 Northwestern took the first step of an arduous journey toward a repeat national championship. While the road back to Championship Sunday runs through Evanston, coach Kelly Amonte Hiller said there’s still much left to learn about this year’s team.

“The last time we played Syracuse, there was a lot of learning that came from it, and that’s really where our focus is,” Amonte Hiller said postgame. “We want to focus on growth and learning — and just getting better from week to week.”

The Wildcats (1-0, 0-0 Big Ten) packed a first-quarter cage crusade that culminated in eight goals during the season’s opening 15 minutes, the Orange (0-1, 0-0 ACC) consistently punched back to keep the game competitive.

In what might be considered a “national championship or bust” year, NU remains just as hungry to reclaim its spot atop the game’s pedestal. Junior defender Sammy White said she and the ’Cats are playing for more than themselves.

“(I’m) remembering why I’m playing and inspiring the younger generation that they can accomplish their dreams,” White said. “I’m also playing for the girls on my team, especially the ones who maybe aren’t getting to play … but playing for every other girl is really important and pushing me to strive for my best.”

Before sellout home crowds inside Ryan Fieldhouse — and later Martin Stadium — NU will look to repeat last season’s home dominance –– when the ’Cats won 12-of-12 contests in Evanston. 

Eight of NU’s nine nonconference opponents made the 2023 NCAA Tournament, with the lone outlier — Colorado — poised to push for its first postseason appearance since 2019. The ’Cats will face two more Final Four foes in their early schedule, taking on No. 2 Boston College on the road and No. 4 Denver at home.

“We just have the philosophy (that) if you want to be the best you have to play the best,” Amonte Hiller said at a preseason press conference. “The more we’re challenged during the regular season, hopefully if we do well, that’ll put us in a position to have confidence going into the postseason.”

The reigning conference and national champions will host early May’s Big Ten Tournament semifinals and finals –– an event that NU has won two of the last three seasons. No. 9 Maryland, No. 10 Michigan and No. 13 Johns Hopkins highlight a difficult conference slate, in which the ’Cats may find more resistance than they did in 2023. 

The Terrapins landed high-profile defender Meghan Ball in the past transfer portal, and coach Cathy Reese’s squad will be keen to reclaim its status as a national contender. Maryland boasts a bevy of blue-chip recruits and seasoned talent primed for a deep postseason run.

Behind star attacker Jill Smith, the Wolverines will look to avenge 2023’s three losses to NU. With a young and hungry core now more experienced and battle-tested, Michigan coach Hannah Nielsen’s group won’t forget its season-ending defeat at Martin Stadium last May.

Amonte Hiller boasts significant familiarity with the Blue Jays. Johns Hopkins coach Tim McCormack served on her coaching staff from 2014 to 2019, assistant coach Jill Girardi commanded the purple and white draw team during a storied career with the ’Cats in 2018 to 2022 and goalkeeper Madison Doucette played at NU for four seasons, leaving in 2022.

While the ’Cats already have a top-five victory under their belt, many unanswered questions and potential storylines will unfold. As the 10-time national champion — two as a player and eight as a coach — knows, consistent development over the season’s duration breeds coveted results.

“There’s always so much learning, and that’s the fun part,” Amonte Hiller said. “You’re learning who you are, you’re learning who you can become and really just challenging yourself along the way. That is really what we do throughout the season. It’s the transformation, and hopefully we can have a lot of fun while doing it.”

With Friday’s road trip to No. 8 Notre Dame up next, here is a breakdown of how NU will likely line up — and some projections for the 2024 campaign.

Goalkeeper depth chart cemented behind sixth-year Laliberty

After four years at Division III Tufts, graduate student goalkeeper Molly Laliberty swiftly stole the spotlight with her acrobatic shot stopping ability and rambunctious celebrations last season. The former NESCAC standout is a stern reminder of untapped talent beyond the Division I level.

As it was in 2023, the starting goalkeeper slot is Laliberty’s position to lose. Last year, she seldom gave Amonte Hiller any reason to question her prowess — and fans can expect to see her in her position again.

Tallying seven saves against Syracuse last Saturday, Laliberty garnered the season’s opening win between the pipes. She looks set to pick up many more where that came from.

Sophomore Francesca Argentieri and junior Cara Nugent will serve as the second and third string goalkeepers, and one of the two may be the heir apparent to Laliberty’s role. Expect the lion’s share of netminding minutes to belong to Laliberty, and the two substitutes will likely feature in blowouts.

Defense returns significant depth, unity

Apart from graduated defender Allie Berkery, the ’Cats return every defensive starter from last season’s national championship game. 

Protecting Laliberty’s cage, White, senior defender Kendall Halpern, graduate student defender Hannah Gillespie, graduate student midfielder Jane Hansen and senior defender Carleigh Mahoney will round off NU’s starting defense.

“It’s phenomenal to get to take the field again with these girls, most of whom were the same unit that were out on the field last year,” Laliberty said. 

Amonte Hiller looked to junior defender Megan Mallgrave and graduate student defender Alia Marshall to log defensive minutes off the bench against Syracuse.

A former NCAA national champion in field hockey, Marshall adds considerable athleticism and versatility to the team’s lineup, according to Laliberty.

“Speaking defensively, I love having Alia out there,” Laliberty said. “She brings a different perspective to how to approach different defensive situations. She’s been like a sponge out there — just absorbing our defense.”

Experienced midfield mainstays backed up by significant depth

Junior midfielder Samantha Smith will likely rotate on draws with her younger sister — freshman midfielder Madison Smith — and junior midfielder Serafina DeMunno. Samantha Smith scored two goals against Syracuse, logging significant time as a two-way midfielder. 

Fellow California native and junior midfielder Emerson Bohlig possesses what might be the highest top-line speed in the nation, and Bohlig will prove a pivotal piece in a potential run back to Championship Sunday. 

Although Amonte Hiller didn’t splurge on transfer portal acquisitions like other national contenders, graduate student midfielder Lindsey Frank from Richmond appears to be a worthwhile investment. Frank notched a hat trick last Saturday.

While first-year playing time will be at a premium, the coaching staff demonstrated early faith in freshman midfielder Noel Cumberland. The 5-foot-11 Fallston, Maryland native possesses elite size and dynamic speed that could carve out play time at defensive midfield.

Sans Rhatigan, the ’Cats carry significant attacking firepower

Graduate student attackers Izzy Scane, Erin Coykendall and Dylan Amonte provide one of the conference’s most experienced scoring trios, and sophomore attacker Madison Taylor may push for a first-team All American nod after a breakout rookie season in purple and white.

Scane and Coykendall will go down as one of the school’s, if not the nation’s, greatest attacking tandems. One of the two will likely take home this year’s Tewaaraton Award, and scoring records will follow.

Without Hailey Rhatigan’s left-handed tenacity, NU’s attack must find another piece to free up Scane from consistent faceguards. Senior attacker Leah Holmes appears to be Amonte Hiller’s choice to slot into Rhatigan’s 2023 role, but a zero-point performance last Saturday leaves much to be desired.

Sophomore attackers Abby LoCascio and Lucy Munro could also carve out attacking roles off the bench this season.

Young talent showcases ability with U.S. U20 Training Team

With Amonte Hiller at the helm of the U.S. U20 national team for the second consecutive world championship cycle, seven current and future ’Cats earned spots on the 42 player training team. The group practiced together this past summer and fall, preparing for the 2024 world championships in Hong Kong.

“It’s been an awesome opportunity for them, and the other players who are on the team,” Amonte Hiller said. “It’s a lot of first-years and sophomores at the collegiate level, and even some high school players. It’s a great opportunity for them to test themselves and really gain some confidence.”

The players ranging from 12 states represent 19 different colleges. Amonte Hiller told USA Lacrosse Magazine this summer that the beauty of an international competition is that players shed their collegiate colors to represent the red, white and blue.

For now, rivalries between collegiate blue bloods will reign supreme, as each college player on the team will be eager to help their school vie for a national crown — before the national squad reunites later in the year.

The bottom line

NU is the clearcut national title favorite — and for valid reasons. Boston College and Denver may present the greatest challenges, as both teams bolstered their top units while filling last year’s shortcomings with both transfer portal and high school acquisitions.

Nevertheless, the ’Cats will more likely than not cut down the WakeMed Soccer Park nets this May. 

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @jakeepste1n

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