Another year, another run at a national title for Northwestern women's lacrosse

Anthony Gruppuso-US PRESSWIRE

Coming off their seventh national championship in eight years, do the Northwestern Wildcats have what it takes to win another title? Of course they do.

The Northwestern Wildcats have won the last two national championships -- seven out of the last eight national championships, in fact. They boast the reigning IWLCA Coach of the Year in Kelly Amonte Hiller, and senior midfielder Taylor Thornton was named Lacrosse Magazine's preseason player of the year.

Naturally, the Wildcats will open up the 2013 season in their customary spot ranked #......2??!?!?! What the what?

Okay, so #1 Syracuse, whom NU beat in the title game last year, returns most of its starters. And the Wildcats lost to graduation their all-time leading goal scorer, Shannon Smith.

But still, where's the respect? Knowing coach Amonte Hiller and the way she runs this program, I'm sure she'll use the poll snub as motivation for her squad.

The Wildcats open up their season on Friday, with a road trip out to sunny Los Angeles for a pair of games. Up first is #13 Massachusetts, coached by former Wildcat Angela McMahon. Then on Saturday, at the LA Coliseum, the Wildcats take on Division 1 newcomer Southern Cal, coached by another former Wildcat, Lindsay Munday.

With the season upon us, here are seven questions facing the Wildcats this year, one for each championship.

1) Will the winning ever get old?

No.

2) Seriously, though, how is the team going to replace Shannon Smith, who had 66 goals last year and graduated tops in the program in career goals (254), second in points (360) and third in assists (108)?

While losing Smith, who at the ripe old age of 22 was named head coach at Hofstra this past summer, is obviously a big deal for the Wildcats, a number of players had good offensive seasons last year and will be looked upon to step up. (The ‘Cats will also have to deal with the loss of fourth leading scorer Casey Bocklet, who transferred to Virginia after her freshman season at NU.) Senior All-American attack Erin Fitzgerald was second on the team in goals last year with 56, while senior midfielder Taylor Thornton and junior attack Kara Mupo each chipped in 33. While each of those players has the talent to be a go-to scorer, I think it's likely the Wildcats will have a more spread-around attack this year. Plenty of goals to go around.

3) Where will Taylor Thornton play?

Thornton's listed position is midfielder. But if you've watched any of NU's games, you'll know that she plays all over the field, chipping in on offense, and also helping lead the defense. At 5'9", with her blazing speed and incredible athleticism, Thornton's the type of talent even novices to lacrosse can't help but notice on the field. In her first two years, she played primarily defense, showcasing her skills as a shut-down one-on-one defender. Last year, she was more involved in the offense. As she says in this article, she's open to playing whatever position coach Amonte Hiller asks her to play, so it'll be interesting to see how she's used.

4) How will the defense look, after losing Alex Frank and Lacey Vigmostad to graduation? And what about in goal, where three-year starter Breezy LoManto also graduated?

Two questions for the price of one. Frank and Vigmostad were mainstays on the defense -- Frank was a co-captain -- and will be difficult to replace, but the Wildcats have a couple of veterans ready to fill the void. Senior Gabriella Flibotte and junior Christy Turner are the other starters on defense, and they'll likely be joined by junior Kerri Harrington, who has made a name for herself with shutdown faceguarding performances against some of the Wildcats' top opponents the last couple of years. The last spot appears up for grabs.

In goal, sophomore Bridget Bianco appears to have the inside track to be the starter, after her solid performance in the Wildcats' exhibition 16-9 loss to Team USA. Fellow sophomore Brooke Jones will push her.

5) And the midfield?

Junior draw-control ace Alyssa Leonard returns, and her skills are arguably the most valuable on the team, given the importance of possession in women's lacrosse. Senior Beatrice Conley and junior Kat DeRonda will likely fill the playmaking roles out of the midfield, supported by seniors Amanda Macaluso and Ali Cassera. Look for sophomore Jess Carroll to make an impact, as well, after she earned a couple of starts in the Final Four last year.

6) Who are the teams to beat?

Well #1 Syracuse is an obvious one. Fellow American Lacrosse Conference member Florida, a rising power, is ranked #3, and perennial Atlantic Coast Conference powers Maryland, North Carolina and Duke are right behind. As usual, the Wildcats have a tough schedule, as they'll play 10 of the top 15 teams ranked in the preseason poll. Circle March 30 on your calendar for the Wildcats' rematch against Syracuse, at Lakeside Field in Evanston. If you can't make it out to the game, it'll be one of three that will be televised this season.

7) Will NU win another national championship?

Sure, why not? With all the graduated seniors, the team does have a few question marks, and the road gets tougher every year. Last season was the first time since 2005 that Northwestern did not win the conference title, as Florida beat them in the championship game. Of course, the Wildcats rebounded to win the national championship. And the Wildcats don't so much rebuild as they do reload, as befitting the elite program that they are. With coach Amonte Hiller, who is one of the sport's most innovative strategists, NU will no doubt come into every game prepared. Should be a great season.

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