by Jonah Rosenblum (@jonahlrosenblum)
Northwestern scored just 13 goals during its disastrous 2011 campaign, so the conundrum facing the Wildcats this fall is where their goals will come from, if they should come at all. It has been a while since Northwestern boasted a premiere scorer. Alicia Herczeg was good and Kate Allen is good, but neither ever topped six goals in a season. The last time a Northwestern attacker reached double-digits was in 2007, when Kelsey Hans scored 10 goals. To put that figure in perspective, nine Big Ten players reached the 10-goal mark in 2011.
The suffering was certainly hard to bear in 2011. The Wildcats finished dead-last in both goals per game and shots per game last season, and they were lodged fairly deeply in the cellar. Northwestern scored just 0.68 goals per game last season, barely half of second-to-last Indiana’s 1.32 goals per game, and took just 9.95 shots per game, a full shot below second-to-last Purdue’s total. Such numbers help explain Northwestern’s abysmal two-win performance in 2011, as the Wildcats suffered the indignity not only of a 2-16-1 season, but of some truly dreadful defeats, including a 6-0 loss at the feet of Stanford, a 4-0 loss at the feet of Penn State and a 6-1 loss at the feet of Iowa.
And yet this year carries with it a certain glimmer of hope.
For one, the Wildcats have a brand-new head coach, Michael Moynihan, who previously led the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee to nine NCAA Tournament appearances and 12 straight Horizon League titles. Moynihan was fairly hot on the coaching wires after an off-the-hook 2011 season, in which his Panthers recorded a school-record 19 wins and reached the Top 10 in the NSCAA Top 25. There’s more good news for the Wildcats, however, as Moynihan brought some of his top brass with him to Evanston. There’s David Nikolic, his longtime assistant on the sidelines, who joins Northwestern after 18 seasons with Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Then there’s Shannon Neely, who has won wherever she has gone, whether it was as a player at Ohio State or as an assistant coach at Grand Valley State, where she helped guide the Lakers to two Division II National Championships.
Otherwise, Northwestern can look forward to another rebuilding campaign, as its young roster continues to gain experience within the Big Ten. Last year’s leading scorer, Kate Allen, returns, along with Sami Schrakamp (three assists) and Niki Sebo (one goal). Overall, Northwestern returns seven players who notched at least 12 starts in 2011, meaning the learning curve should be slightly lower for this year’s roster. Most important, the Wildcats retain stability in the goalie’s box, as Anna Cassell returns following a fairly impressive freshman campaign.
Another factor working in Northwestern’s favor is its schedule, which will keep the Wildcats tied closely to Lakeside Field for the bulk of September. Last year’s team had to play seven of its first ten on the road, including a difficult six of seven stretch, making it hard for the Wildcats to generate any sort of rhythm or confidence. This year’s team will follow a three-game season-opening road trip with a five-game homestand, and will indeed play seven of its next eight by the friendly waters of Lake Michigan. Even better, through the entire month of September, the Wildcats travel just twice, once to Rochester, Mich., to take on Oakland, and the other time to the Hoosier State to take on Indiana and Purdue. With their most daunting trips falling toward the end of the season, the Wildcats should be able to get off to a strong start, both environmentally (keeping down that gas mileage) and athletically (with their scenic home stadium and enthusiastic fan support helping build team morale). Also helping is that many of Northwestern’s non-conference opponents – Colorado, Miami (Ohio) and Kansas, to name a few – aren’t all that good, giving the Wildcats a chance to build momentum early.
Obviously, expectations in Evanston should be kept low for the fall of 2012. Illinois and Penn State are both ranked, and it has been a long time since Northwestern was able to keep up with the rest of the Big Ten. The Nittany Lions, coming off a 10-1-0 conference campaign, should be tough as usual, with Maya Hayes looking to exceed last year’s total of 31 goals. Illinois’ Vanessa DiBernardo will be hard-pressed to top her eight game-winning goals from last season, and the Wildcats will need to put more than three shots on goal against the Fighting Illini this time around. Iowa humiliated Northwestern last season, by a 6-1 margin, and that was when Cloe Lacasse (who scored a team-leading 12 goals in 2011) was just a freshman. That being said, this team should be far less of a train wreck than last year’s team, and perhaps the Wildcats’ long trek upward will begin on Sunday, when they open their season against the Jayhawks.