The New Year hasn't been kind to Northwestern sports. The mens' basketball team is still winless in 2015. After starting the season 11-1, the women's basketball team has gone 3-5 in the month of January. Heck, even the wrestling team is 1-6 since the ball dropped.
As has been the case every year for the last decade, only one Northwestern sport has consistently alleviated the pain of disappointing football and basketball seasons. That sport is lacrosse. And the relief starts on Saturday when the Wildcats open their season against USC.
After reaching her 10th consecutive Final Four in 2014, coach Kelly Amonte Hiller has assembled yet another championship-caliber team. The competition is stiffer than ever, but Northwestern has the talent to be there at the end. Here's what you need to know about the fifth ranked team in the nation.
Northwestern graduated nine seniors last season, including draw-control savant Alyssa Leonard and lockdown defensive specialist Kerri Harrington. Leonard and Harrington were integral to Northwestern's success, and are darn near impossible to replace. Amonte Hiller still doesn't know who will take Leonard's place in the draw circle this season. In a recent interview with the Big Ten Network, she mentioned seniors Lauren Murray and Paige Jones as possible replacements, but she added that more than one person will have to fill that void.
Usually when a team loses nine seniors it takes a step back. Not Northwestern. If anything the Wildcats are taking a step forward. Northwestern boasts the best incoming freshmen class in the country according to Inside Lacrosse. Under Armour All-Americans Selena Lasota, Shelby Fredericks and Corinne Wessels highlight a stacked recruiting class. With 14 freshmen, Northwestern is one of the youngest teams in the nation. But what the Wildcats lack in experience, they make up for in sheer talent. This group will be exciting to watch.
Goalkeeper Bridget Bianco returns for her senior season. Bianco was one of the 25 final nominees for the Tewaaraton (player of the year) Award and will once again anchor Northwestern on defense. Kara Mupo also returns for her fifth season. Mupo finished second on the team with 40 goals in 2015 and is arguably Northwestern's best offensive player. Kaleigh Craig begs to differ though. The junior led Northwestern in scoring last season before suffering a season-ending injury. Craig is a powerful scoring threat poised for a big year.
GK: Bridget Bianco
A: Kara Mupo
A: Shelby Fredericks
A: Corinne Wessels
M: Kaleigh Craig
M: Selena Lasota
M: Jess Carroll
M: Lauren Murray
M: Sheila Nesselbush
M: Olivia Harpel
D: Spring Sanders
D: Haydyn Anigan
Other notables: Lydia Cassada and Emily Stein
Northwestern has one of the toughest schedules in the country. Eleven of NU's opponents (bolded) are ranked in the top 20.
Feb. 7: @ USC
Feb. 14: vs. No. 6 Virginia
Feb. 19: vs. No. 8 Duke
Feb. 21: @Marquette
Feb. 28: @ No. 2 North Carolina
March 7: vs. Colorado
March 22: vs. No. 3 Syracuse
March 26: vs. No. 1 Maryland
March 29: vs. No. 12 Louisville
April 2: @ Michigan
April 5: vs. No. 17 Penn
April 12: @ No. 16 Stony Brook
April 16: @ No. 10 Notre Dame
April 19: vs. No. 11 Penn State
April 25: vs. No. 13 Ohio State
Best Case Scenario
Northwestern's young team grows up fast; Amonte Hiller finds a reliable replacement for Leonard in the draw circle; Craig and Mupo combine for over 100 goals; Bianco whips the freshmen defenders into shape; Northwestern secures one of the four number one seeds in the NCAA tournament and rides home field advantage to an unprecedented 11th consecutive Final Four berth and an eighth national title.
Worst Case Scenario
The Freshmen 14 struggle to adjust to the college level; Northwestern's brutal schedule takes a toll on the players; the Wildcats suffer on the draw and on defense without Leonard and Harrington; Northwestern fails to earn home field advantage in the tournament and loses in the Elite Eight.
I actually think this team will be even better than last year's. The return of Craig will really help the offense, which struggled mightily at times last season. With Craig, Mupo, Fredericks, Lasota, Wessels and Cassada, I expect Northwestern to have one of the best offenses in the nation. And Northwestern is extremely deep, especially on offense, so an injury or two won't have a drastic impact like it did last year.
The draw and the schedule are the biggest concerns. The sport of women's lacrosse is no longer dominated by a handful of teams. The talent distribution is the greatest it's ever been, and as a result, Northwestern is no longer a lock to make it to the Final Four like in years past. I don't think Northwestern is good enough to beat out Maryland for the inaugural Big Ten crown. But I still believe, when all is said and done, that Kelly Amonte Hiller and company will find a way, as they always have, to compete for an eighth national title in Philadelphia.