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Northwestern lacrosse season preview: Rebound year for Kelly Amonte Hiller, Wildcats

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A determined Kelly Amonte Hiller looks to return to the Final Four this year.

Henry Bushnell

"It is always darkest just before the day dawneth," English historian Thomas Fuller once said. For coach Kelly Amonte Hiller and Northwestern's women's lacrosse team, that darkest time may have been last season, when the team failed to advance to the Final Four of NCAA tournament for the first time in 10 seasons. This, from a program which only began playing again at the varsity level 14 seasons ago.

Despite the streak coming to an end, there are reasons to think last year ranks as one of the most impressive coaching jobs of Amonte Hiller's illustrious career, mainly because she almost continued the Final Four streak despite supposedly being in rebuilding mode. The team played eight freshmen heavy minutes throughout the season. In addition to that, the team was missing various key players during some parts of the season and still managed to compile a 14-7 record overall and went 7-2 while at home on the shores of Lake Michigan. There were some growing pains, but after some midseason adjustments from Amonte Hiller and her staff, as well as the team, Northwestern was playing as well as any team in the country by the end season.

Unfortunately, those early season losses came back to hurt the team. By not finishing with a better win-loss record, Northwestern sealed its fate in drawing undefeated Maryland in the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament. Many analysts believe if Northwestern had not run up against the juggernaut Terrapins in the quarterfinals, the Final Four streak would have extended to 11.

There is good reason to think last year was only a minor slip in the otherwise steady reign of Amonte Hiller. Lacrosse Magazine ranks Northwestern as the #5 team coming into the season. The youth of last year's team benefits this year's team, as all the key players have significant experience now and, as Amonte Hiller put it in her season-opening press conference, are "battle-tested." On top of that, Northwestern retains much of its talent from last year – the two biggest losses being attacker Kara Mupo and goalie Bridget Bianco. Without further ado, we preview the team position-by-position and make some predictions for what the 2016 season has in store.

Goalie

We will start in the back. As mentioned above, one of the few places where Northwestern will be starting a player with little previous experience at this level is in goal. Bianco had a long and successful career tending the net for the Wildcats. Normally, losing a three-year starter at such an important position might foreshadow a down year for the program. This year's keeper, however, will be helped by an experienced defensive backline.

The two players competing for the position are junior Natalee Easthom and freshman Mallory Weisse. Both options are untested, as Easthom played in just one match two seasons ago as a freshman and Weisse has yet to play a minute of college lacrosse.

Weisse was an All-American last season after setting her school's all-time saves record. This past summer, she was in Scotland with the American U-19 team which lost to fellow Wildcat Selena Lasota's Canadian team, although Weisse did not play.

We will have to wait a few games before we see who gels best with the squad. Although an inexperienced goalie is obviously less than ideal, last season, Maryland proved  that  a decorated, experienced goalie isn't completely necessary for success: the Terrapins ran the table. If Northwestern can receive consistently above-average play from in front of the net this season, Amonte Hiller will be able to sleep a little easier at night.

Defense

Northwestern's normally stout defense had a down year last season, finishing 49th in the country in goals allowed per game last season at over 10. That should improve majorly with what projects to be Northwestern's most experienced starting line, most likely pairing two seniors with a sophomore.

One key returner is third-year starter and now-senior Spring Sanders, an athletic player who can turn defense to offense as quickly as any player in the country. If she can set the tone early for the defense and help guide some of the younger players, the defensive unit could see some massive improvements – maybe not at the beginning of the season but after a few weeks of gelling as a unit. Fellow senior Emily Eichner will also likely get the starting nod along the back line.

It will also be interesting to note the growth of Shannon Nesselbush, the defense line's lone non-senior starter, after one offseason on campus. She is the younger sister of midfielder Sheila Nesselbush and began to come into her own toward the end of last season, starting every game but one during the season. This unit should be able to rely on its experience to shut down other teams.

A freshman to watch for is Kim Harker, who hails from Carmel, NY. She finished her high school career with 273 goals, 51 assists, 313 ground balls and 397 ground controls. She is tall (5-foot-10) and physical – she earned four varsity letters in high school for playing on the boy's ice hockey team. Clearly talented on both sides of the ball, it will be interesting to see where Amonte Hiller places her. Harker will certainly bring an enforcer presence to the defense and may be able to play a Sanders-like position, one where she is a defender but has free reign to join the attack when she sees an opening.

Attack

And finally, where most of the Wildcats' competitive advantage lies: attack. Traditionally, Amonte Hiller's great teams have been full of athletes, playing a run-and-gun offense and outscoring opponents. This year's version has more talent than some of those past teams, and that talent should show itself on offense.

It all starts, of course, with sophomore standout Selena Lasota. Originally from British Columbia, she had never played field lacrosse – she grew up playing the version popular in Canada, box lacrosse – until being spotted at an event in Florida by one of Amonte Hiller's assistants, Danielle Spencer, who convinced her to come to Evanston. Since then, Lasota has taken the sport by storm, finishing last season fifth in the nation with 69 goals and often finding herself face-guarded during matches, a rarity for a freshman, which speaks to the respect other teams had for her. After a strong offseason in which she helped lead team Canada to gold in the U-19 games, scoring three goals and recording two assists in the final against the USA, she looks to come into this season more ready than ever to help lead Northwestern back to the Final Four.

She will have help, of course. Other important players along the frontline include senior Kaleigh Craig, a tall, fast player who is not afraid to get physical in front of goal and who finished last season with 46 goals, good for second on the team. Another player to watch is sophomore Shelby Fredericks, who spent much of last season as the team's draw control specialist and will have surely worked hard on that in the offseason, hoping to add her name to the long list of Amonte Hiller's great draw control specialists.

Two other players of note in attack are junior Sheila Nesselbush, the third Wildcat, along with Craig and Lasota, to be named Big Ten Players to Watch, and transfer Danita Stroup. Stroup, like Lasota, comes from British Columbia, and recorded two assists in the U-19 championship game over the summer. She played her first two seasons in New York, at LIU-Brooklyn, starting all 16 games last season and finishing second on the team in goals at 31, before deciding to transfer to Northwestern this season. She should add another dynamic element to Amonte Hiller's attack plan.

Prediction

After coming into last season knowing it was going to be a rebuilding year, Amonte Hiller managed to have her team playing as well as any squad in the country by the end of last season and it was mostly bad luck in the tournament draw that caused the team to miss out on extending its Final Four streak. This season, a year of experience for all of last campaign's freshmen, combined with strong upperclassmen leadership and a talented recruiting class should be cause for a major improvement. Add the fact that the team now has new digs to call home, the team will undoubtedly be looking for a deep postseason run. After last season's quarterfinal loss, this team is hungry and Amonte Hiller knows how to use that hunger to drive her team better than anyone. It should be a fun lacrosse season in Evanston.