At this point, the medals and honors accrued by the Northwestern women's lacrosse program are, or at least should be, drilled into the head of every Northwestern fan.
It took Kelly Amonte Hiller just three years to take Northwestern from club team to varsity team to national champions. Then the team won four more championships. In a row. Over that time, Northwestern went 106-3. If you played Northwestern during those five years, there was a 97.2% chance you were going to get beat, and odds were, you were going to get embarrassed too.
Northwestern wasn't called the Evil Empire because of Kelly Amonte Hiller's icy demeanor. It was called that because it was a juggernaut. In its undefeated 2009 season, Northwestern had a goal differential of +265. The Wildcats won by an average of 11.5 goals a game. They had four games where they won by less than five. They had seven games when they won by more than 15. They won the championship 21-7 over a North Carolina team that lost just three games to teams not named Northwestern the entire year.
In 2010, Northwestern didn't win the championship, somehow, losing to Maryland by two in the championship. But then the Wildcats went back-to-back in 2011 and 2012. The 2010 season was little more than an overlooked speed bump on the route to complete and utter dominance.
In 2013, the cracks began to show, a statement that sounds a little ridiculous for a team that would only lose three times all season, one of which was a 22-4 dismantling at the hands of Florida. That kind of final score was so off the map that it would have been completely reasonable to start questioning whether or not the team was the force it had been for the majority of the previous decade. Northwestern responded by holding Florida to three goals in the American Lacrosse Conference Championship and running to a National Semifinal appearance.
The next year Northwestern lost five 1-goal games, suffering their worst record since in 11 years. NU still gutted its way into the Final Four behind a defense that was stingy to the point of being miserly. The Wildcats, though, were bounced out of the tournament easily by a Maryland team that was led by then-sophomore and first time Tewaaraton Award winner Taylor Cummings.
Maryland snapped the back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back championship run in 2010 and had asserted itself as the new best team in the country after going on to win the championship in 2014. Northwestern would have to replace Alyssa Leonard, the best draw control specialist the game had ever seen, but there was no reason for Northwestern fans to expect anything other than a return to, if perhaps not the top of the mountain, then at least close enough to see the summit.
2015 brought with it a new conference. After years of running the American Lacrosse Conference, Northwestern would compete in the Big Ten, joined by Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan, Rutgers, and the new squad from the ACC, Maryland. The first game in the conference's history would take place on Northwestern's campus, under the lights, on a late March evening.
Northwestern entered the game as the underdog. Maryland was being billed as one of the best lacrosse teams in the sport and Northwestern had lost to No. 8 Duke and No. 2 North Carolina already. Still, the hype was real. Northwestern busted out new Gothic uniforms. The Big Ten Network would carry the curtain-raiser of its conference's newest sport live.
It was close for 20 minutes. Then Maryland rattled off three goals in a minute and would score six more over the next 10, jumping out to an unassailable 12-2 lead.
10-goal games in women's lacrosse are functionally slaughter rule games. Once the game gets that out of hand, a running clock is put in place. It's a rule that serves little other purpose than to hasten the end of teams suffering. For that to happen to the great Northwestern Wildcats on their home field was hard to put into words. The last time Northwestern was down double digits at home was 11 years prior to the day, in Amonte Hiller's second year.
Northwestern would end up losing 16-5. The Wildcats were beaten handily in every statistical category. Northwestern, what was once the Death Star of women's lacrosse, was completely dismantled, and it wasn't by a scruffy-looking nerf herder in a beaten-up X-Wing. They were crushed by a better team. And on that evening, a line in the sand was drawn.
Northwestern wasn't the biggest and baddest anymore. Maryland acted like the older brother who gave the younger brother a head start only to dominate once the younger one had a glimpse of a victory. Maryland ran NU out of the stadium and the Terrapins haven't stopped running since. Maryland lost just one time in 2015 on the way to another championship.
One of the great perils of sportswriting is to assign narratives because it makes for a better story. But for nearly every other Northwestern loss in the decade prior to that game, you felt that if they could play that team 10 more times, Northwestern would certainly win at least one, and would probably come close to a split. Even the time the Wildcats got beaten by 18 by Florida, they'd get revenge only a few weeks later.
Maryland was, and remains, different.
Northwestern was not in Maryland's class last year. The teams would play again in the NCAA Tournament, this time in Annapolis in the quarterfinals. That game was close for the whole first half before Maryland scored the first nine goals of the second period to bury Northwestern 17-5 and keep the Wildcats out of the national semifinals for the first time in a decade. This year Northwestern and Maryland have played twice. Northwestern lost 29-13 on aggregate. Northwestern played an almost flawless game on its home field against the Terrapins in the Big Ten Championship and still lost by three. Maryland is simply dominant. That's the first time since Northwestern's first title that any team can come close to making that claim. And because of that, the dynasty must be over.
The most famous story of Northwestern's dramatic rise to dominance in women's lacrosse is Kelly Amonte Hiller happening to see Courtney and Ashley Koester jogging and playing intramural football, recognizing their athleticism, giving them a lacrosse stick and turning them into stars. Courtney would become the national defender of the year in 2005. Ashley would become a second team All-American.
Northwestern entered the women's lacrosse game when the getting was good. It was the first, and still only, team from west of the Appalachian Mountains to win a national championship. The Wildcats made hay by pulling athletes from places other than traditional lacrosse hot beds, like Taylor Thornton from Dallas who was an All-American in each of her four years in Evanston. Northwestern has helped to grow the game of lacrosse. Since Northwestern's championships the game has expanded and moved west (credit to Jason Dorow and Zack Becker for the GIF).
That growth also seems to have brought about Northwestern's downfall.
Northwestern played with a kind of athleticism the game hadn't really seen before. The Wildcats' players were bigger, faster, and stronger than their competition. They even wore shorts, the first women's lacrosse team to do so, which was somehow a big deal. As more and more schools have added teams and the recruiting pool has gotten larger and more athletic, that "bigger, faster, stronger" gap that Northwestern had has been somewhat negated.
Kelly Amonte Hiller rewrote the book on what success in women's lacrosse looks like. The only problem is that other coaches started reading it.
Northwestern lost to USC this season, a team that, in its 4th season as a varsity program, is trying to be Northwestern West. The Trojans' head coach, Lindsey Munday, won national championships at Northwestern. Alyssa Leonard, another Northwestern all-time great, is on the Trojans' staff as well. USC lost to Louisville in the regular season, a team which began as a varsity program after Northwestern already locked up three national championships. It is cruelly fitting that Notre Dame, the closest thing to a Midwest rival Northwestern has, was the team to knock the Wildcats out.
Northwestern will make the Final Four again soon. The Wildcats might even make it next year, as Selena Lasota, Sheila Nesselbush, Mallory Weisse, and many more will be back. The program is still stacked to the brim with silly amounts of talent and its keeps on reloading. Still, if and when the Wildcats return to the top of the lacrosse world, it will not be a continuation of the dominance they had between 2005 and 2013. It will be a new chapter.
Northwestern has proven it can go from zero to hero. It has proven it can put the sport in a headlock for a period of dominance that rivals anything John Wooden ever put together at UCLA. Now, the Wildcats have to prove they can reclaim their spot at the head of the class. It may just be the hardest mountain to climb.