On Senior Day, the Northwestern women's lacrosse team got a huge performance from its senior leader on offense, Kaleigh Craig, and moved back to .500 on the season with a dominant 20-9 victory over Rutgers on Sunday afternoon.
Craig, the team's captain, finished with a career-high six goals on six shots, and sophomore Selena Lasota recorded her 100th career goal in the first half as Northwestern rolled to a 20-9 victory at Lanny and Sharon Martin Stadium on a gorgeous day in Evanston. The victory brings the team's record to 7-7 on the season and 2-1 in Big Ten play.
Lasota recorded a hat trick on the afternoon, finishing with three goals and an assist.
Two other seniors had notable performances: Lauren Murray scored her first two goals on the season while Emily Eichner recorded her first career goal with 2:04 to play in the game, ending a 5-0 run for the Scarlet Knights.
While Eichner capped the strong day for the seniors with the last goal of the game, the first two came courtesy of a freshman, Leighton Yenor, who got things going early for the Wildcats with a goal at the 28:36 mark of the first half on a feed by Lasota. She would score another just 23 seconds later, this time off a pass from sophomore Shelby Fredericks.
Coach Kelly Amonte Hiller also notched her 250th career victory with the win.
This game was a must-win of sorts for the team. A team must have a .500 record or better to be eligible for postseason play in the NCAA Tournament. After Sunday's victory over Rutgers, the Wildcats can now split their final two games of the season, both tough road contests, and still remain eligible for the NCAA tournament.
The remaining two games, at Penn State (4/23) and at Ohio State (4/29), will not be easy for this young Northwestern team. Going into hostile territory with so much at stake and pulling out at least one victory is a tall order. The Nittany Lions currently sit at No. 12 in the Inside Lacrosse poll while the Buckeyes come in at No. 8. For reference, the Wildcats are ranked No. 16.
Luckily, Amonte Hiller excels at giving her teams the confidence necessary to get the job done. She will surely have her team ready to go for this week — a week that will make or break the team's season.
Normally a positive, Amonte Hiller's brutal scheduling has come back to bite the team in ways this season. Northwestern generally plays one of the toughest schedules in the sport, and this year was no exception. More than half of the team's games this season came against teams ranked in the top-10 at the time. Five games were against top-5 opponents. It does not help matters that the Big Ten conference is full of tough teams, including Amonte Hiller's alma mater: undefeated No. 1 Maryland.
Of course, there are benefits to playing such a tough schedule. The team will usually grow faster when tested by higher-quality competition. Players find their niche early and learn how to contribute. Finding ways to win games against tough opponents is invaluable later in the season. Generally, a team that has been in many different situations throughout won't panic when it finds itself down on the road, or losing by a wide margin early in a game,.
While Northwestern's tough schedule has it hurt it in several ways (the 7-7 overall record is cause for concern), there could be no better time for the toughness gleaned from it to shine through than in this coming week. Coming into the season as a top-10 team, Northwestern missing the tournament was unthinkable for such a storied program. Amonte Hiller's squad has competed in the tournament since 2004 and had reached the Final Four every year from 2005 until last year. Dropping its remaining two games would put the team into the unfamiliar territory of missing the tournament entirely, while grabbing at least one victory would help solidify the Wildcats' postseason hopes.