It was truly a tale of two halves Friday evening at Lakeside Field.
After a two hour, 33 minute lightning delay, the No. 8 seed Northwestern Wildcats came out of the delay with good energy and clean play in the second half to beat the Louisville Cardinals 10-7 and advance to the second round of NCAA tournament.
The teams were tied 4-4 and went to their tents at halftime when the first lightning bolt struck. The rules stipulate that there must be no lightning strikes for 30 minutes before play can resume and it was 6:56 pm before that happened, but rain still continued to fall throughout the second half.
Despite that, it was much cleaner in the second half for the Wildcats. The teams combined for 16 turnovers in the first half but only 9 in the second half, with Northwestern committing just four after the delay. One might expect the game to get sloppier in the wet conditions, but the players used the break to make sure their minds were right and came back onto the field whooping and dancing and carried that energy into the second half.
"We were so amped up at the start of the second half," freshman standout Selena Lasota said. "It really showed. Passes were quick, everyone was in the right spot. It translates to everyone on the field."
Lasota finished with five points on the night, including four goals and one assist. She opened her scoring with one of her classic free-position rockets. Generally, players will run at the goal from a free-position and shoot close to the net, but not Lasota. She takes one step and lets it fly, usually converting. In addition, she was all over the field defensively and had a number of athletic saves to keep possession in key moments. Lasota feels right at home in the rain, originally hailing from wet Vancouver Island and had no problem with the conditions.
"Personally, the rain brings some sort of energy to me," Lasota said. "Everybody gets pumped up. Your sticks are getting wet, they're different, but you have to adapt just like you would adapt to any other change you would experience on the field."
One area where the Wildcats were expected to have issues with was the draw control. The Cardinals employ Kaylin Morissette, who ranks first in the country in total draw controls with 178. But freshman Shelby Fredericks was not intimidated.
"Everyday in practice I go against [Assistant Coach] Danielle Spencer," Fredericks said. "She challenges me, she goes hard against me. Not only her, I go against Selena, I go against Lauren Murray. They're all very good at the draw."
Fredericks took time during the break to reflect on how the draws were going and it seemed to have helped, as the draw controls went from a 5-4 Louisville advantage at the break to a 12-7 Northwestern advantage by the end of the game. While Fredericks and Lasota split time in the draw control circle in the first half, the second half was all Fredericks and she prevailed over the older Morissette, winning eight of 10.
Amonte Hiller has stuck with the young New Yorker all season, despite an up and down year in the draw circle. But now, in the postseason, that is paying off with Fredericks going toe-to-toe with the best specialist in the country and more than holding her own.
"You're starting to see the experience that she's had all season long," coach Kelly Amonte Hiller said. "She's been getting better and better every single game and she was able to really figure things out."
Fredericks was quick to share the credit for her success though.
"It takes everyone on the field to win the draw control," she said. "Everyone else locking in was a key factor."
An important part of the defensive game plan that paid off for the Wildcats was their aggressive doubling. It started in the first half, when Northwestern was able to force Louisville into a number of ill-advised passes and a litany of turnovers. The Cardinals finished with nine turnovers in the first half.
"They were gaining some momentum so we decided to amp up our pressure and we were able to cause some turnovers right away," Amonte Hiller said. "We said, 'We're going to stick with it.' It's working and I think it really got them out of their comfort zone."
Never one to back down, Amonte Hiller employed some mind games with about 13 minutes left to play in this win-or-go-home game for both teams. Junior Kaleigh Craig scored from a free-position shot to make it 9-6, Northwestern. Louisville head coach Kellie Young could perhaps feel the game slipping away and called for a stick check on Fredericks, who had been dominating in the draw circle in the second half. A stick check is when the net of a player's stick is too deep, making it easier to catch and hold onto the ball. Fredericks stick was deemed fine and right away, Amonte Hiller called for a stick check of her own on a Cardinal. That stick too proved adequate and the game continued.
This may remind some fans of an earlier game this season against Penn State when their coach, Missy Doherty, called for a stick check and a frustrated Amonte Hiller called for one immediately afterwards on one of their players far down at the end of the bench, seemingly to prove a point. A Big Ten memo was sent soon afterwards to all members of the league reminding them that stick checks may only be called on players on the field.
Fittingly, the forecast predicts lightning again on Sunday when Northwestern hopes to improve its home record in NCAA tournament games to an electric 22-0.