Our Northwestern Wildcats are 2-0 on the young season and back atop the women's lacrosse poll, where they belong, after #2 Syracuse lost to Maryland last weekend.
But the Wildcats will face one of their toughest opponents on Friday, when they travel to the frigid hinterlands of Chapel Hill (gameday forecast: high of 38 degrees, 60% chance of rain) to take on #5 North Carolina. The road trip then continues on Sunday to Nashville, where Northwestern will open up conference play against Vanderbilt.
I had a chance to talk to Wildcats head coach Kelly Amonte Hiller to get her thoughts on her team and a few other assorted lacrosse topics.
SoP: You've had two games, both wins, so far. How do you feel about how the team?
KAH: Obviously it's still very early, but I'm excited. I think we feel like we have potential, and it's a great group of girls. I'm just real excited to help this group mold together and play better every time we step onto the field.
SoP: You guys lost a lot of solid players to graduation, like Shannon Smith, Alex Frank and Breezy LoManto. Every year is different, so what's going to be different about this year's team that fans will notice?
KAH: The team's very athletic. I think people will definitely notice that. We have a lot of speed. I think we're relentless on the field, and we have a lot of weapons. Even though we lost a lot of players, we've got a lot of kids who can be dynamic and some newcomers who will make an impact, as well.
SoP: Shannon Smith was obviously your go-to scorer the last couple of years. Do you have that go-to player this year, or is it going to be more scoring by committee? Where's your offense going to come from?
KAH: It's going to be a team approach. With someone like Shannon, she's just tremendous, so we're taking a team approach, trying to spread around the scoring as much as possible.
SoP: On defense, you lost one of your steadiest defenders in Alex Frank and also Lacey Vigmostad. Who's going to fill those roles?
KAH: Our three top defenders coming back are Christy Turner, Gabby Flibotte and Taylor Thornton. We feel very experienced on the defensive end, even though we lost Alex and Lace, and we need to just make sure that the youngsters are up to speed. I think you'll see that we've got some good athleticism back there, and we're pretty excited.
SoP: You mentioned Taylor Thornton back there on defense. She was named Preseason Player of the Year,which is a huge honor, obviously. As we saw last year, she's a shutdown defender, but she's also able to score. How are you using her this year?
KAH: She's getting involved in both ends of the field. Her primary role is defense, but we're looking for her to be a threat on the offensive end.
SoP: Just looking at growth of the sport, I see you have four players from Texas, which isn't a traditional lacrosse hotbed. You guys just played at USC, which is starting up its varsity program. Why do you think lacrosse is spreading across the country so quickly?
KAH: I just think it's a great sport to watch, a great sport to play. It's easy to pick up, it's fun, there's a lot of scoring, and there's a lot of different components. In terms of adding it for universities, you can share facilities with football or soccer, so it's fairly attractive from an athletic director's standpoint.
SoP: Speaking of facilities, how is the athletic facilities plan that Northwestern recently announced going to impact the program?
KAH: It's going to impact our program greatly. We're going to be able to play games inside. We've never had that. We're excited about that. It takes out the weather in our equation, which is a great thing. We live in a climate that changes all the time, and so to be able to take that piece out, it's pretty awesome.
SoP: Looking ahead to 2014, one of Northwestern's big lacrosse rivals, Maryland, is joining the Big Ten, along with Rutgers. With those new additions, are there plans for the Big Ten to add lacrosse as an official sport? [NU, Ohio State, and Penn State have varsity women's lacrosse, with Michigan going varsity next year. Adding Maryland and Rutgers would provide the minimum six teams for the Big Ten to sponsor the sport. NU, OSU and PSU currently play in the American Lacrosse Conference.]
KAH: Yeah! There are. There will hopefully be a conference. That's the plan. We could not be more excited about that. It gives us more credibility within the Big Ten. We're already getting great coverage on the Big Ten Network and things of that sort, but it'll be even more expanded now.
SoP: Looking at the ALC this year, I'm sure you've got a target on the back of Florida, who beat you guys out for the conference title last year. Besides the Gators, how's the conference looking?
KAH: The conference is going to be a really tough one. Obviously you've got Florida that's a power. In addition to that, we've got a lot of good teams. Penn State is always strong and is stronger now. Ohio State has been very strong the last few years. Johns Hopkins is returning almost all of their team back, and then there's Vanderbilt. We're excited about the competition our conference brings and how it prepares us for where we want to go. It gives us great competition every game.
SoP: You guys opened up the season ranked No. 2 in the preseason poll, even though you guys are the defending national champions. Did you guys take that as a snub, and is it motivating you guys, or do you not pay attention to those sort of things?
KAH: I don't really focus on polls. It's just someone else's opinion. It's really what we do on a day to day basis. We prove ourselves on the field every day. That's our job, whether it's in a game setting or a practice setting.
SoP: Last year, in the championship game, there were some critics that accused you of making the game unwatchable with stall-ball tactics. How do you respond to that criticism?
KAH: I don't think we were stalling, I think the defense was stalling by not coming out and playing us. You don't see any team do that type of thing against us, because we play fearless and we go after them. It's a matter of opinion. We were in a position where we were a few goals ahead. That's the advantage you get by being in the lead. Nothing's fair in life, and when you get ahead, you have an advantage, and we were able to spread them out a bit, and they have to come out and play us. That's part of the sport in general.
SoP: Some of those critics have called for women's lacrosse to implement a shot clock. Would you be in favor of that?
KAH: I'm actually open to different ideas. I'm not opposed to anything. I just know that nobody stalls against us. For people to say we're stalling is crazy. I think that we played a great game, and we had a a great tactic, and our players played with so much heart, and that's why we won. I just think that we need to continue to focus in on ourselves. We're not getting caught up in any of that. We'll play however the rules are. If it's fast-break style of game, we'll adjust to that. We're excited to play the game of lacrosse. We play it to the best of our abilities no matter what the rules are.