Coach Kelly Amonte Hiller must believe in trial by fire. Northwestern lacrosse's coach scheduled an away game against the No. 4 Duke Blue Devils to open the season, and her team responded just as she would have hoped, and secured an 'upset' (No. 5 over No. 4) with an 11-8 victory Sunday.
Sophomore Selena Lasota picked up where she left off last season, scoring a first-half hat trick and five goals in total. Junior Sheila Nesselbush also had an impressive first half, netting a hat trick herself. The Wildcats led 6-5 at the break. Lasota then opened the second half with a goal, giving Northwestern a 7-5 lead.
However, after Northwestern stretched the lead to 8-5, the Blue Devils stormed back. A goal from the hosts with under eight minutes remaining in the game knotted up the score at 8. Nesselbush had disappeared a little in the second half, and the Wildcats needed to find some offense.
So up stepped senior Kaleigh Craig. Craig scored two second half goals, including what would eventually prove to be the decisive tally less than 60 seconds after Duke's equalizer. Lasota then doubled the lead, and transfer Danita Stroup, playing her first game in purple, pushed the lead to 11-8.
Let's move on to three takeaways from the Wildcats' first match of the season:
Impressive goalie play
It was unclear coming into the season who Northwestern's goalie would be. After losing senior Bridget Bianco to graduation, Amonte Hiller had to choose between two players with little experience: junior Natalee Easthom, who had appeared in one game in her time on campus, and freshman Mallory Weisse, who came in as the top-ranked goalie in her class but had appeared in zero collegiate games.
Weisse, from Westfield, NJ, got the start and rewarded Amonte Hiller with an outstanding game. She recorded double-digit saves and while Duke scored eight goals, with Northwestern's high-powered offense, Amonte Hiller would be thrilled with that defensive number every game. Weisse also had a number of tough saves on Duke free position shots — saves which helped Northwestern maintain momentum when Duke could have easily taken it back.
Despite her youth, Weisse even helped pump up the defense during the game, displaying strong leadership in her first game as a collegiate player. At one point, Northwestern only held a one-goal lead, and Weisse came up with a big save from a free position shot. She then rallied the defense, yelling and high-fiving.
As mentioned in the season preview, attack is really where this team should excel, and it showed in the season opener. In the first half, the duo of Lasota and Nesselbush felt impossible to stop when they had the ball. While Duke was very methodical in possession, taking their time switching the field and poking and prodding the Northwestern defense, when the Wildcats had the ball it was a different story. If the Blue Devils turned it over in Northwestern's third, whoever got the ball immediately started racing up field, before trying to find one of the attackers to initiate the offense. This usually resulted in Lasota running at goal — which, more often than not, will result in a positive outcome for Northwestern.
While Lasota's partner-in-crime in the first half was Nesselbush, in the second half it was Craig. She put Northwestern on top for good after the Blue Devils managed to tie things at 8 and Northwestern's defense was looking a little shaky. After Lasota secured the ensuing draw control, she got the ball to Craig who galloped to goal and finished low. Craig was last year's second leading scorer and should continue to be a major contributor on offense.
Northwestern's last goal came courtesy of the other Canadian on the team, Danita Stroup, a junior transfer from LIU-Brooklyn who also hails from Lasota's home province of British Columbia. It was the first goal of her Northwestern career.
There is no doubt about it, this game was a tough one for the Wildcats — especially as a season opener. To go into Durham and take this game from the higher ranked team is an impressive feat and bodes well for the rest of the season. Especially when Duke tied the score at 8 and Northwestern's defense was looking a little shaky, it was impressive for the team to close the game the way it did, with a 3-0 run to put the game away.
The Blue Devils are an experienced team, with 10 juniors and seven seniors. The Wildcats are still a fairly young team, although last year gave a lot of good experience to this year's sophomores. A weaker team may have continued to fall behind after losing the lead to the home team, but Weisse, Criag, Lasota and others showed a strong resolve in not letting that happen.