Friday afternoon, when most of their peers will be finishing up with classes for the week and making plans for Friday night, Kaleigh Craig, Selena Lasota and the rest of the Northwestern women's lacrosse team will be fighting for their season in Columbus, OH, when they take on No. 19 Ohio State.
The Wildcats sit at 7-8 on the season. A loss would be a devastating conclusion to what has been a very rough campaign for the team: the eight loses already accumulated are the most in over a decade. In addition, to qualify for the NCAA Tournament, a team must have a .500 record or better — losing on Friday would leave Northwestern two games below with zero to play. Having started the season ranked No. 5 in the nation, missing the tournament would a very disappointing end to a season that started with so much hope.
In what is a bit of a quirk but also evidence of the immensely difficult schedule the Wildcats have played, Northwestern will actually go into Friday's matchup the higher ranked team, No. 15 compared to No. 19, yet most would surely pick the home Buckeyes as the favorites to come out on top.
With those high stakes in mind, let's take a look at what coach Kelly Amonte Hiller will hope to do to position her team to leave Columbus with a victory.
Stay playing the entire 60 minutes
It might sound trivial, but the team has gotten into the bad habit of either starting well and faltering in the second half or getting into a hole early and then running out of steam in a comeback attempt.
Although Amonte Hiller will certainly have the juiced and ready to go in this pivotal match, it is important the team leaves enough in the tank for the second half.
By the same token, going down early is not a reason to panic. Ohio State ranks 50th in the nation in scoring defense--the team gives up a lot of goals, meaning this could be one of those games where Craig or Lasota erupts for five goals in one half.
In Big Ten play, Northwestern has a habit of starting well but not finishing strong. To date, the team has scored 39 goals in the first period, but just 18 in the second. Defensively, the numbers are almost flipped: the Wildcats have only given up 16 first half goals in conference play; that number jumps to 31 for the second half.
Although Amonte Hiller has not subbed frequently this season, her team is deep with freshmen like Leighton Yenor, Kim Harker and Nell Copeland, and perhaps this game she will look to keep her players' legs fresh by rotating more often.
Stay strong defensively
Although freshman net-minder Mallory Weisse has played well this season, coming up with some big saves in tight spots, the rest of the defense has been rather porous. Although Ohio State ranks 50th in scoring defense in giving up 10.07 goals per game, Northwestern is even worse, allowing 10.87 goals per game.
Some of the goals have come in contests where Northwestern is pressing for a goal to tie or get back in a game, but oftentimes the defense is susceptible to quick-passing teams who find someone in front of goal for a snap finish. The absence of versatile midfielder Sheila Nesselbush, out with a season-ending lower-body injury, has been especially visible in this aspect. Her experience would prove invaluable on the defensive end, keeping the team in sync and communicating.
Senior Spring Sanders has been playing well of late, even scoring two goals in her last game. If she can continue to be involved in the offense and help shore up the defense, Northwestern will be in good position to steal the game in Columbus.
Her role may involve tailing Ohio State's leading scorer, senior Cian Dabrowski, who checks in tied for 20th in the nation at almost three goals per game.
Since Ohio State gives up so many goals, if Northwestern can lock things down on the defensive end, the team will be in good shape.
Above all else, the team cannot lose its head, especially if it goes down early in this road contest. In such a high stakes game which is essentially win or go home, the surest way to have the team's season ends early is if it goes down early and panics.
This is another place where Nesselbush would help out. With this young team, having another experienced player who has been there before on the field would help immensely. Alas, in this season of what-ifs, her injury is simply another one. Veterans like Lasota and Craig must step up, both on the field and as leaders.
Northwestern will be playing Ohio State Friday afternoon at 5/4 pm EST. The game will be available to stream on BTN Plus.