Friday night, Northwestern's women's lacrosse takes on No. 5 and undefeated USC in Evanston in perhaps the team's biggest game of the season to date.
In what has largely been a season of unfulfilled promise thus far, this game stands out as a chance to get the season back on track — and comes at a time when Northwestern is playing its best lacrosse of the year.
Before last week, the program was on shaky ground: It was two games below .500 this late in the season for the first time in over a decade; it had been blown out by No. 1 Maryland in College Park, and then lost a heart-breaker in overtime at Penn three days later. The Wildcats would need a .500 record or better to qualify for the NCAA Tournament, so a berth was in serious doubt.
However, heading into Friday's game, the team now feels much sturdier. Last Thursday, the Wildcats decimated Michigan, 20-4, on the back of 6 goals from sophomore Selena Lasota. They then recorded their most impressive win to date — a hard-fought 17-12 victory over then-No. 5 Notre Dame. The home team came out firing in the first half, looking the best it had all season, racing out to a 9-3 lead in the first half before holding on late.
Two weeks ago, most would have picked against the Wildcats in this high-stakes matchup against USC, but coach Kelly Amonte Hiller seems to have flipped a switch for her team and has them playing well right when they should be kicking into gear. Here are three things to watch for during the game.
Win the draw, rule the world
In women's lacrosse, it all starts with the draw. As Amonte Hiller likes to say, "Win the draw, rule the world." Shelby Fredericks, ever since halftime of the Marquette game, has had a fire in her in the draw circle. She has absolutely dominated in the circle, often winning it straight to herself before initiating the offense.
In its past 9 games, Northwestern has outdrawn its opponent in 8 of them, mostly thanks to Fredericks. She is currently eighth in the nation in draws control per game, at 6.17. She will most likely be matching up against junior Michaela Michael, one of USC's top players, in the circle most of the game.
Since there is no shot clock in women's lacrosse, a team which wins the draw can sit on the ball as long as it wants. Although the past few games, Northwestern has scored at a high clip, it is generally a more methodical offense, switching the ball back and forth, trying to find a hole to attack in the shifting defense. Winning the draw, therefore, is key.
A perhaps overlooked aspect of the 'Cats recent great play has been the defense, even with the absence of versatile midfielder Sheila Nesselbush, out for the season with a lower-body injury. Her younger sister, Shannon, has stepped up her game, as have the other defenders — Spring Sanders, Jasmine Docal and others. The defense, for the most part, was in sync and communicating well last week in holding Notre Dame, the third-ranked offense in the country, to below its season average.
Key to that has been freshman keeper Mallory Weisse. She has also played spectacularly down the stretch, filling up the goal and making it difficult for opponents to sneak one past her. She has also done very well in free-position chances, plays that usually favor the offensive player.
The defense has another tough task ahead Friday night, however: USC is the top-ranked scoring offense in the country, led by Michael and senior Caroline deLyra, who pace the high-scoring offense.
Look for Spring Sanders, especially, to step up in this one and make a difference. Sanders is one of the quickest players on the team and can pounce on an errant pass or ground ball and immediately clear the ball, turning it into a fast break chance for the Wildcats.
Another aspect of this game which looms large is the coaching staffs. USC's head coach, Lindsey Munday, and one of its assistants, Alyssa Leonard, are both Northwestern alums who played, and got their coaching start, under Amonte Hiller. Amonte Hiller's coaching tree spans far and wide, to all parts of the country, but Munday is one of the earlier protégés. It will be interesting to see how the teams match up and what tricks Amonte Hiller has up her sleeve to try and pull the upset over her higher-ranked opponents.
The adjustments in-game — how USC defends Lasota, how aggressively the Trojans double — might decide this matchup of what look to be two very evenly matched teams. It should be an exciting game and if Northwestern can manage the upset, its previously lost season will be firmly headed in the right direction.
Prediction: Northwestern 14, USC 13