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Northwestern lacrosse 2017 season preview

The Wildcats have a ton of talent as they look to return to the top of the sport.

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Northwestern women’s lacrosse finds itself in an unusual place after last year’s underwhelming finish, in which it bowed out in the second round of the NCAA tournament with a lopsided loss to Notre Dame. The team was able to partially avenge that loss last week with a hard-fought 14-13 victory over the Fighting Irish in South Bend, but what are the prospects for the rest of the season for the Wildcats? With Sunday afternoon’s test at Colorado looming, we take a look at what fans can expect from the season.

Key losses: Kaleigh Craig, A; Nancy Dunbar, M; Lauren Murray, M; Spring Sanders, D

Key returnees: Corinne Wessels, A; Selena Lasota, A; Shannon Nesselbush, M; Shelby Fredericks, A; Sheila Nesselbush, M; Lindsay Darrell, M/ D; Christina Esposito, A; Mallory Weisse, GK

2016 record: 11-10

2016 conference: 3-2

2016 season result: 15-3 loss to Notre Dame in second-round of NCAA Tournament

Head Coach: Kelly Amonte Hiller

Year: 16th

2017 Face-Off Yearbook All-Americans: Selena Lasota, A, Jr. (Third); Lindsay Darrell, M/D, Jr. (Third); Sheila Nesselbush, M, Jr. (Honorable Mention)

Key freshmen: Megan Kinna, D

The new normal?

The story line that has surrounded the program for the past few years is constantly asking: “Is this the year the Wildcats are back?” Back, meaning of course, to the dynasty days. When coach Kelly Amonte Hiller reeled off six straight national championships and double-figure Final Fours in a row. But the sport has changed dramatically since that time, partly because of the success Amonte Hiller has had at Northwestern. More schools began to see the viability of having women’s lacrosse programs and more programs brings increased parity. Amonte Hiller and the Wildcats are victims of their own success. It’s no surprise that many of the newly established programs are coached by Amonte Hiller alums.

However, that doesn’t mean the players have changed their goal in any way — it’s still a national championship, as far as anyone on the team is concerned.

“There’s an obvious end goal,” sophomore keeper Mallory Weisse said.

Weisse has coupled that sentiment with strong play to open the season, recording 10 saves in her team’s upset of Notre Dame. Last year, the highly-touted freshman finished the season 11th in the country in total saves and this year should be able to command the defense with more aplomb.

She will need to be more vocal because one of the big losses coming into the season is the graduation of defender Spring Sanders, a four-year starter who might have been the team’s quickest player.

Other notable losses include Kaleigh Craig, the tall forward who always seemed to be causing chaos near the goal and two experienced midfielders, Nancy Dunbar and Lauren Murray.

Renewed focus

Players are stepping up to fill any voids Northwestern might have, said Amonte Hiller. She said the captains, seniors Christina Esposito and Sheila Nesselbush, have played a big role in keeping the team focused early in the season.

“Sheila is a great leader,” Amonte Hiller said. “She’s very well-respected within the team and works extremely hard, does the right thing.”

Nesselbush, whose younger sister Shannon also plays on the team, returns after a leg injury forced her to miss the majority of season and the entire postseason. The team is thrilled to have one of the nation’s top end-to-end players back, and Amonte Hiller likened it to adding a top recruit who already knows the system.

After last year’s lackluster end to the season, Amonte Hiller said she is pleased to see a determined and focused energy around the team.

“For our program, usually, being a top team all the time, you kind of expect things,” she said. “This team realizes that they can’t expect anything. They have to go out there and prove it every single team they step out on the field.”

Another addition that could spell better performance as the season progresses is the team’s newest assistant coach, Hannah Nielsen.

Nielsen played for the Wildcats from 2006-09 and is the only lacrosse student athlete in history, male or female, to win four national championships and two Tewaaraton trophies, given to the most outstanding American college lacrosse player. If anyone knows how to get the program back to its glory days, it is Nielsen, the brightest of stars for the Wildcats.

Looking ahead

With a fairly young team, the success of this year’s team depends largely on the upperclassmen and who can step up from the younger crop of players.

Through their first two games, both victories, the team has shown how that blueprint might work.

Selena Lasota, the team’s offensive fulcrum, has five goals through two games, and veteran Christina Esposito has seven. That duo will need to keep up their offensive production for the Wildcats to keep winning.

But Amonte Hiller will also need some role players to step up on a game-to-game basis.

In the team’s season opener against Canisius, it was Corinne Wessels. The skillful attacker notched a goal and four assists to help secure a 9-7 victory. Amonte Hiller sung her praises at media availability.

“Corinne has great eyes. I think she’s getting a lot more mature as a feeder... She’s got a lot of confidence coming into this season.”

Then, during last week’s top-10 matchup in South Bend, it was freshman Megan Kinna who scored three critical goals as Northwestern won by a goal.

Kinna is a player who will be expected to play big minutes right away. Inside Lacrosse magazine named her the team’s “Impact Arrival” this season. Amonte Hiller shifted her to midfield for the Notre Dame game and the move immediately paid dividends with a hat trick.

“Meg Kinna really came out of her shell last game,” Amonte Hiller said. “We moved her to midfield and she did a great job for us. She’s definitely one to watch.”

What can we expect

“We have a lot to prove every time we step out on the field — that’s a positive.”

Amonte Hiller knows how to win championships, and this team feels hungry. With a potential Tewaaraton award winner in Lasota, no opposing team is going to feel safe with a lead.

The Wildcats have experience in all three areas on the field and one of the top emerging keepers in Weisse. This season has also gotten off to a much better start than last.

Could this be the year Northwestern recaptures its magic?