clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Northwestern's Selena Lasota is the unlikeliest of lacrosse superstars

New, 2 comments

From her hometown — on an island off the west coast of Canada — to her childhood lacrosse opponents — boys — Selena Lasota's path to stardom couldn't be more unique.

Photo: Henry Bushnell

EVANSTON — Lake Michigan gleams under the early-afternoon sun. It's a Sunday in mid-April, the time of year when Evanston turns to "Heavanston," and students flock to the Lakefill. Frisbees whiz about, hammocks hang from trees, and a kite even rises in the air. One word comes to mind that describes the whole scene: radiant.

Back up on the north end of Northwestern University's campus, a gentle breeze wafts over to Lakeside Field... where lacrosse is being played. If you lost track of the game though, caught up in a sunshine-induced daydream, you'd probably be forgiven. In fact, Lakeside was probably filled with onlookers guilty of just that — their minds drifting out, then back in, then back out, the weather getting the best of them. But one thing invariably grabbed their attention; one thing repeatedly brought them back in:

The way number 2's purple and yellow lacrosse stick twirled.

It twirled effortlessly. It moved side to side; it moved from the grasp of one hand to the other; it rotated 360 degrees.

It constantly attracted the eyes of opponents too. And man, did it take a beating. Stick checks, slashes... some of them illegal.

It unorthodoxly flung free position shots from long range. It would also get slammed to the turf emphatically in celebration of a goal. It's been getting thrown to the ground like that a lot these past two months. Forty-eight times to be exact.

But back to the way it twirled... Something about it was special. It was different. A women's lacrosse stick, with its shallow pocket, simply isn't supposed to be able to move like that and retain a ball.

google map
Campbell River, Lasota's hometown, is 1,870 miles away from Chicago | Photo: Google Maps

But girls with indigenous roots from islands off the west coast of Canada who only started playing this game a few years ago aren't supposed to dominate college lacrosse as freshmen either.

And that's exactly what Selena Lasota — the commander of that purple and yellow stick — is doing.

***

By the last day of the President's Cup, an annual showcase tournament for college lacrosse hopefuls, everything — or almost everything — has been sorted out: teams have identified their targets and players have begun to narrow their lists of potential schools. So in 2012, when Northwestern assistant coach Danielle Spencer received a tip from a club coach about a girl playing for Team BC whom nobody knew about, she wasn't sure what to expect. But as soon as she sat down, she realized that somehow, this girl from north of the border had slipped through the cracks.

That girl was Selena Lasota.

"She stood out right away," Spencer says. "And I didn't realize it at the time, but when I saw her play, that was her first time playing in a field lacrosse tournament." Up until that summer, Lasota had played the indoor derivative of the game, box lacrosse.

That didn't stop Lasota from dominating the competition though. And Spencer knew right away that she needed to call Northwestern head coach Kelly Amonte Hiller about a girl with a ponytail who could make magic with a lacrosse stick.

Recruiting someone who has fallen through the cracks was right up Amonte Hiller's alley, too. As a coach of a school in a non-traditional lacrosse area, she has excelled at finding talent in overlooked or undervalued places. The foremost example may be Taylor Thornton, from the Dallas area, a place not typically thought of as a lacrosse hotbed. But that wasn't a deterrent for Amonte Hiller, who promptly went in, found Thornton, and saw her start every game of a four-year career and win a national player of the year award as a junior.

"Who's Northwestern?" -Selena Lasota's thought when NU assistant coach Danielle Spencer first contacted her

So shortly after her discovery, and her call to Amonte Hiller, Spencer phoned Lasota, and introduced herself as a coach from Northwestern. But there was one problem:

"Who's Northwestern?" Lasota thought at first.

Up to that point, the prospect of going to college in the States hadn't even occurred to Lasota. She was thinking about the possibility of playing soccer, her second sport, at a Canadian university. But certainly not lacrosse. And certainly not in the States.

However, upon finding out more about the illustrious program Amonte Hiller had built on Lake Michigan, Lasota decided playing college lacrosse was something she wanted to do. She knew she'd regret it for the rest of her life if she let the opportunity go to waste.

"I was nervous about leaving home," Lasota says. "But the excitement and opportunity overrode that."

***

"My town? There were just trees."

That's how Selena Lasota describes Campbell River, British Columbia, her hometown of roughly 36,000 people on the east coast of Vancouver Island.

Campbell River 2
Elk Falls in Campbell River | Photo: City of Campbell River website

Oh, and there was water too. Everywhere. Campbell River is known as the "Salmon Capital of the World." So naturally, all the men in Lasota's family were fishermen.

"She would go out halibut or black cod or tuna fishing [with her father and brother]," says Lisa Sharpe, Lasota's mother. "Usually tuna, I guess it was. Tuna fishing for sometimes a month at a time. Out fishing to make some extra money."

On other occasions, Lasota and her family would escape to an even smaller island on the west coast of Vancouver Island, where her mother grew up. It wasn't exactly a quintessential American vacation spot. There was no TV, no telephone... not exactly luxurious. But Lasota loved it. "It was a cool place to get away from everything," she says.

Fast forward to the present, and the contrast couldn't be more stark. Students buzz around left and right, swarming to class, to dorms, to dining halls. Cars, trucks and busses roar up and down Sheridan Road.

"Everything is a lot quicker here," Lasota says. "Where I grew up, it was a slow pace and we just went and did our own thing. But here you're always on a schedule."

If there's one constant throughout Lasota's story though, it's a certain comfortableness with change. The initial transition to field lacrosse went alright, and, oh yeah, the step up to the college level is going okay too. So Lasota embraces the heightened speed of her life.

She also embraces a culture that, aside from her trips to the United States for lacrosse, was completely unfamiliar to her when she arrived on campus in September. She still has some catching up to do though.

"It's funny because a lot of the girls down here, they quote a lot of movies," she says, "and I just don't pick up on anything."

But it's her upbringing that made her who she is. It's the source of her work ethic, her drive. It's the source of her toughness. It's the source of her independence.

And it's that unique childhood with which she still connects.

campbell river 1
Water. And trees. | Photo: City of Campbell River website

"It's weird," she says. "Because little things in my everyday life kind of remind me of back home. Like, just the trees on campus, the water surrounding campus... I like Northwestern so much because when I watch film of a game that we played on our home field, there's the big green trees in the background, and then the water.

"It's just perfect."

***

Now, back to the way it twirled — that purple and yellow stick on that picturesque Sunday afternoon. Because there's a backstory.

It began with a double pack of miniature lacrosse sticks from Canadian Tire, a Canadian retail store. One for Selena Lasota, one for her older brother.

"She just loved it as soon as she picked up those mini-sticks," Sharpe says of her daughter. "And the kids just started playing and they got really good, really fast."

But there's a distinction to make. The first thing to understand about the lacrosse Lasota grew up playing is that it's... not lacrosse. It needs a prefix: box. "For us, [field lacrosse] is just ‘lacrosse,'" Spencer explains. "In Canada, that's field lacrosse, and ‘lacrosse' is box [lacrosse]."

"She had to be good because if she wasn't, she would get squished." -Lisa Sharpe, Lasota's mother

Box lacrosse originated in Canada in the 1920s and 30s, when it was played on ice rinks that had been drained for the summer. Over the years, it migrated south and throughout North America. Most popularly, it found its way to the National Lacrosse League, the 9-team North American professional box lacrosse league just as famous for its NHL-esque fights as anything else.

Yes, this is the game that Selena Lasota grew up playing... pads, helmet and all. The town of Campbell River was too small to support an all-girls lacrosse league, so Lasota ended up just following her brother into his league...

And that's where the story continues. Against the boys.

"She had to be good because if she wasn't, she would get squished," Sharpe says. "[The boys] got a lot bigger, and they got a lot stronger, and it's full contact here."

But don't feel sorry for Lasota; if anything, feel sorry for the boys she tormented — with her nifty jukes, with her ankle-breaking spin moves.

Lasota is modest about it, but her mother? Not so much. "She basically dominated," Sharpe says.

Lasota says she enjoyed the physicality of the game. She learned to maneuver in tight spaces, to ward off defenders, to endure and fight through contact.

"The way that she handles the stick," Spencer says, "those skills transfer over really well [to field lacrosse]."

"I think playing with the boys really made me the player I am today." -Selena Lasota

So the way that stick twirled? Sure, it looks effortless. But it didn't just come from nowhere. It came from those hockey-turned-lacrosse rinks; it came from the boys and their stick checks; it came from the hours upon hours in the backyard, a plastic bottle hung from a lacrosse net to drill home precision.

Lasota's skillset is a product of her past.

"I think playing with the boys really made me the player I am today," she says.

***

Forty-eight goals. Forty-eight. In 13 games. And many more to come. Pretty good for someone who admits she still struggles with the spacing of the game, and still needs to learn its nuances.

Selena Lasota came to Northwestern as Inside Lacrosse's third-ranked freshman in the class of 2014, but she's somehow managed to exceed even those lofty expectations. She ranks fifth nationally in goals per game, better than any other freshman. She even leads the team in turnovers forced.

Lasota scored four goals in her season debut, a 12-11 comeback win over USC in Los Angeles. She tallied seven more over her next two games. She later scored four in a victory over No. 5 Syracuse, and notched another hat trick to help Northwestern take down No. 10 Louisville.

Recently, her dominance has begun to have a Stephen Curry-esque effect on the rest of the field: defenders are sucked into her orbit, opening the field for other players.

"They constantly need to be worried about where she is on the field," says Shelby Fredericks, Lasota's teammate and classmate. "That opens up things for everyone else, and it's our job to be aggressive out of that."

Says Amonte Hiller, "Anytime you have one individual that another team really has to worry about, it makes it easier for everyone else."

"Do you talk to those girls when they're face-guarding you? Do you have nice things to say to them?" -Lisa Sharpe, Lasota's mother, on text messages she sends to her daughter

Some opposing teams structure their entire defensive game plans around stopping Lasota. They'll employ a defender whose sole task is to stick to Northwestern's star, wherever she goes, no matter where the ball is.

Sharpe says she texts her daughter about this very subject: "Do you talk to those girls when they're face-guarding you? Do you have nice things to say to them?" She laughs. "It must be really frustrating, eh?"

But Lasota likes the challenge.

However, there's another, much bigger challenge looming. While no one can argue with the extraordinary amount of success Amonte Hiller has had at Northwestern, establishing a powerhouse in the Midwest (the team won five straight national championships in the late 2000s, going 106-3 over those five seasons), the past two years have brought earlier postseason exits than expected. The Wildcats have lost two straight national semifinals. And this year's team currently sits outside of the top five.

Lasota and her classmates, all 14 of them, have a trend to reverse. They have a program in their hands that yearns to return to the top of the college lacrosse world, a spot it occupied for around a decade. And they're confident they can get it there.

"Whatever year it is — this year, next year, the years after — we're not going to put a limit on what we can do," Fredericks says. "I think that we're limitless."

***

Does Selena Lasota feel like a superstar?

Sometimes. When she was profiled by the Chicago Tribune before the season, definitely. And all the young girls recognizing her and asking for pictures, that's pretty cool too.

In sports though, there are different types of stars, there are so many different ways in which talent and fame manifest themselves. There are prototypes into which most players fit. There's the scrappy underdog. There's the player with unfulfilled potential. There's the larger-than-life celebrity. The list goes on. But there's one type of player that is universally loved: the unlikely, unassuming superstar. That's what Lasota is.

Everybody wants to talk about her. Everybody wants to talk to her. She's the subject of an overflowing list of media requests. And while she certainly doesn't shy away from the attention, it can be overwhelming.

"They're all talking about her up here in little ole Campbell River." -Lisa Sharpe, Lasota's mother

However, there's one place — perhaps the most important place — where her celebrity remains biggest.

"They're all talking about her up here in little ole Campbell River," Sharpe says. "High school, her teachers, her friends; my clients talk to me about her. ‘Oh, I heard your daughter on the radio again,' and ‘Oh, I saw a picture of her in the paper.' Yeah, non-stop. It's great."

But why most important? Because these people understand where all the talent, all the goals, all the silky stick-handling came from. They remember the girl who loved nature. They know the girl who would get knocked down by the boys and bounce back up.

It's all those things, not just the outstanding lacrosse ability, that define Selena Lasota.