Northwestern Lacrosse back and with something to prove
Northwestern’s lacrosse season opened up last week with a win at USC in the L.A. Coliseum. The team has this week off but will get into the meat of their schedule next week. With that we turn to a look at this year’s team. There are a lot of changes and we are fortunate to have this in-depth preview from “slides2″ of LaxPower.com.
We will let him take it away…
There were moments last season when the Wildcats, who largely comprised the same team that had clawed its way to a sixth national title the previous year, looked overmatched. Specifically, Northwestern could not get past league rival Florida, who edged NU in a hard-fought game at Lakeside Field and then humbled the team completely at the conference tournament in Gainesville.
If last year’s Wildcats were no better or worse than the squad that immediately preceded them, it appeared that they might have been leapfrogged by the ambitious and deeply talented Gators. But when the NCAA women’s lacrosse semifinals rolled around, it was Northwestern that had the experience and poise and superior coaching to hold off all comers and wrap up a seventh national title. It was as if they knew they held the right cards all along.
The 2013 Northwestern team is decidedly not the same as the 2012 version.
One of the team’s best and most storied senior classes has graduated. At the risk of waxing elegiac, let us review:
Shannon Smith will be remembered as one of the all-time greats. Her single-handed willfulness spearheaded the drive to the 2011 championship and, last year, when defenses eventually learned how to slow her down, she was able to make them pay in other ways and rose to the fore yet again at tournament time.
Alex Frank was a contributor in countless ways from endline to endline. She finished second only to the magical Christy Finch in career caused turnovers in the NU record book.
Goalkeeper Brianna LoManto was quoted as saying, in effect, that it is not how many saves you make but when you make them. She lived up to her word in the fullest.
The same principle applied to Jessica Russo, who did not rack up a large number of goals, but the ones she scored tended to come at critical junctures. Lacey Vigmostad was the most experienced defender and a team leader whose visits to the offensive end were uncannily effective.
Maria Tedeschi was a defensive reserve who put out a lot of energy when she was on the field.
The Wildcats incurred another substantial loss when sophomore Casey Bocklet, a sharp passer who came off the bench to play a key role in the championship game, transferred to Virginia.
The 2013 Cats still abound in talent and toughness, but it is the lack of the aforementioned players that leads me to rank this year’s team, at least at the outset, behind the three other finalists of 2012.
It is a bit hard to imagine the Northwestern offense without Smith in her magisterial perch behind the net and the team will surely miss the 222 points she produced in two years from that location. But her absence opens up some interesting new possibilities.
The scoring mantle now falls on the shoulders of Erin Fitzgerald, who had 56 goals and plays with an aggressive flair that, often enough, sends her knocked to the turf but earns her lots of free positions. Possessed of the team’s hardest shot since the playing days of new assistant coach Danielle Spencer, Fitzgerald will no doubt inherit a broader spectrum of offensive responsibilities.
The talented Kara Mupo, third-leading scorer, will also be called upon to take up a larger portion of the goal-making burden. Amanda Macaluso, a crafty southpaw, had a late-season resurgence after a relatively quiet spring and maybe the momentum will carry over into her senior year.
How the rest of the offense shakes out is, as anyone who has watched the team for any length of time can attest, a flexible affair. Attackers and midfielders change on an ongoing basis, with frequent guest appearances from the defensive backfield. Who, aside from the lady on the sideline brandishing the colored flashcards, knows which offensive combinations might arise?
More experienced members of the offensive rotation, such as Kelly Rich, Ali Cassera, Kat DeRonda, and Bea Conley, have each shown moments of excellence, but have tended to play a subordinate role. Now is the time for one or more to step up in a bigger way. Younger players such as Kate McDonald, Brooks Lawler, and Jess Carroll will get more of an opportunity.
Among the incoming freshmen, Christina Esposito, a speedster from Long Island, may have the best chance of making an impact. Alyssa Leonard, queen of the draw circle, will surely be in the mix, as will midfielder Gabriella Flibotte, especially in transition.
Just who will quarterback this troupe remains an open question? Bocklet seemed a logical candidate, but she is now in Charlottesville. A brief glimpse of autumn action would indicate Mupo instead.
On the other hand, a meaningful chunk of the offense can be filed securely under the heading: Taylor Thornton. What had begun early in her career as an occasional foray over the restraining line became a regular feature last year, when she scored 33 goals. While she does not exactly mesh with the rest of the offense (she only had one assist), and while purists may quibble with her unpolished stickwork, how can anyone deny the persuasiveness with which she can split two defenders and park the ball over the goalie’s shoulder?
Her other numbers: 58 ground balls, 71 draw controls, and 28 caused turnovers (not to mention 75 fouls; Thornton is where the action is, for better or worse) speak for themselves, but it is hard to quantify the degree to which she can influence the flow of a game. From the aggressiveness of her defense to her mind-boggling clears up the field to her tenacity in post-draw scrums – much of what proceeds from start to finish channels through her arms and legs.
After her startling success as a freshman, it appeared at times last year that Leonard had been put to disadvantage by the rule change that dictated the placement of the ball between crosses on the draw, but she finished with a rush and by season’s end she had grabbed virtually as many draw controls as she had the year before.
The consummate midfielder on the squad, however, is Flibotte, who made important defensive stops, scored in transition, and, when a ground ball precipitated a multi-player entanglement, she was more likely than anyone else to come up with it in her stick. Other midfielders to watch are speedy youngsters who are still learning, such as Carroll or freshmen Kaleigh Craig and Spring Sanders.
The defense requires some rebuilding with the departure of Vigmostad and Frank. There is Thornton, of course, who will most likely be assigned the other team’s best scorer, but we learned last year that she is not the only defender with good wheels, as Christy Turner turned a few heads with her upfield runs. One could build a small international all-star team out of the players that have been successfully faceguarded by Kerri Harrington. No doubt she will take on this specialized role as needed, but she will probably spend more time as a regular defender.
Goalie Bridget Bianco had the opportunity to understudy LoManto last year as a freshman. A highly-touted recruit, she has already attracted notice for her stalwart performance against the US Team last month.
It has become received wisdom that coach Kelly Amonte Hiller will take whatever athletes she has on hand and mold them into interchangeable parts.
This is a bit of a myth. Each year’s team has had its own proclivities and personality. This year’s team will be fleeter of foot (the graduated seniors were hard chargers, every one of them, but none was especially fast), but less experienced and potentially more mistake-prone. For two years in a row the Cats have managed to maneuver their Final Four opponents, faster and more explosive teams, into the kind of chess match that Hiller rarely loses. In order for them to be in a position to do that again, a number of younger players are going to have to fill some big shoes.