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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Daily file photo by Henry Frieman
Junior midfielder Samantha Smith looks to jumpstart an attack. Smith has pulled down a team-high 86 draw controls this season.

Just before a lunch break at July’s U.S. Women’s U20 National Team tryouts, coach Kelly Amonte Hiller and Johns Hopkins coach Tim McCormack watched a pack of Team USA hopefuls challenge Blue Jay assistant coach Jill Girardi on the draw under the relentless summer sun.

Nearly 10 months later, Amonte Hiller and McCormack will occupy opposite ends of Martin Stadium’s sideline Thursday as No. 1 Northwestern takes on No. 12 Johns Hopkins in the Big Ten Tournament semifinal. The game will mark Girardi’s return to the stomping grounds where she broke program draw control records in a standout career from 2018 to 2022.

Amonte Hiller said Girardi left a lasting impact on the Lake Show and appears to have swiftly made her mark in Baltimore. Junior midfielder Samantha Smith, a back-to-back first-team all-conference selection, matched up with Girardi every day in practice as a freshman.

“To be able to practice against the best every single day gives you a lot of confidence that when it becomes your turn, you can go out and do it,” Amonte Hiller said. “(Smith) learned a lot from Jill, and I’m very excited that Jill has taken her passion into the game now (through) coaching.”

While the No. 5 seed Blue Jays (11-6, 2-4 Big Ten) upset No. 4 seed Michigan in Saturday’s quarterfinal to book their Evanston trip, the Wildcats (13-2, 5-1 Big Ten) haven’t seen game action since they clinched the regular season conference title in Ann Arbor on April 21.

The teams last met in NU’s March 16 Big Ten opener, when the ’Cats won 14-9 behind graduate student attacker Izzy Scane’s seven-goal flurry.

Scane, who is just seven goals away from snapping the NCAA’s career goals record, said finding close-range opportunities will likely be an emphasis Thursday — as it was less than 50 days ago. 

“A lot of working a zone is getting into a middle and either creating space for the girls on the outside or being the one to catch the ball in the middle and finish,” Scane said. “The big thing with that is just going hard to cage and making sure you’re not just staying low pressure on the outside, but really penetrating the D … doing the best you can to be a threat.”

Junior defender Sammy White missed NU’s last battle against Johns Hopkins due to a lower-body injury, but she remained active in defensive scheming from the sideline. With her six-game injury spell reminding her of her love for the sport, White returned for the final four regular season games, earning second-team All-Big Ten Honors.

White said the Blue Jays constantly move on the attack, keeping opposing defenses on their toes.

“The defenders said after that game that (it) was really tiring, and they moved a lot,” White said. “We’ve been working on a lot of picks, a lot of switches, a lot of slips and all that stuff … I’m ready to be aggressive and not let them run all the actions they want to run.”

Johns Hopkins deploys a balanced scoring unit with plenty of supporting options behind attacker Ava Angello. The 6-foot sophomore has scored 45 goals and added 13 assists in 17 games this season.

With Angello’s elite height, she possesses the uncanny ability to simply shoot over defenders, White said.

She and sophomore attacker Madison Taylor are the two highest scoring second-year players in the conference, but Taylor has outscored Angello 12-5 in the points column during the New York natives’ two collegiate matchups.

“She’s a really cool person, and we both always cheer each other on,” Taylor said.

The Blue Jays also boast the Big Ten’s draw control leader in midfielder Jennifer Barry. McCormack’s transfer portal splash from Boston University has pulled down 107 draws this season, including five pivotal draw controls against the Wolverines Saturday.

While the ’Cats held Barry to just one draw control in March, Amonte Hiller said Johns Hopkins’ circle unit seems to have hit a significant stride as of late, but Samantha Smith and freshman midfielder and defender Madison Smith have been tested throughout the campaign.

“There’s probably not a team that has more experience against the top draw people across the country,” Amonte Hiller said. “We’ve played against the best of the best, including Hopkins. We feel like the breadth of experience we’ve gained has put us in the position to have great knowledge … but we really have to fight for every play.”

Between the pipes, graduate student goalkeeper Molly Laliberty and Blue Jay goalkeeper Madison Doucette will both look to help drive their teams to a Saturday championship shot. Doucette started in her junior and senior seasons at NU, before Laliberty stepped into the fold last season.

After a year away from the college game, Doucette has enjoyed a standout season under McCormack, making nine pivotal stops in Johns Hopkins’ quarterfinal victory. Graduate student attacker Erin Coykendall said a goalkeeper of Doucette’s caliber challenges an opposing offense to fine-tune its shot selection.

“She’s been killing it this season,” Coykendall said of her former teammate. “Especially with a good goalie, you know you’re gonna have to take quality shots and place them.”

With a championship appearance and potential No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament well within reach, the ’Cats have remained laser-focused on themselves and the imminent challenge ahead, White said.

For Amonte Hiller, who is vying for her third conference tournament title in four years, a season’s worth of trials have built up to this moment.

“We’ve been tested a bunch this season,” Amonte Hiller said. “We know people are going to come after us, and why wouldn’t they?”

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