Shocking as it seems for arguably Northwestern’s most consistent and dominant program over the 21st century, the women’s lacrosse team has never won a Big Ten championship of any kind. Of course, the main reason for that lack of success is that the conference is only in its fourth year of existence. Regardless, since a historic run of seven national championship in eight years, the Northwestern program has seemed to trend constantly downwards. But after an 11-3 start to the season, it looks like the Wildcats are in position to turn that around.
After a relatively slow 5-3 start to the season, Northwestern reeled off four straight wins (including three over ranked teams) during spring break. The streak was highlighted by a comeback win over conference foe Johns Hopkins and a double-OT victory on the road against then sixth-ranked Penn. Spectacular goalkeeping by redshirt freshman Julie Krupnick and a team-high 12 goals from senior Sheila Nesselbush led the way, as they received Big Ten Goalkeeper and Offensive Player of the week respectively.
But as students returned this past week, the Wildcats needed to find a way to stay hot despite playing twice in just three days in near-freezing temperatures. They did so with ease. Ohio State had seen struggles all year, and Northwestern helped that trend continue, dispatching the Buckeyes 20-6 in a contest that was never even that close. The more surprising result of the weekend came against the Fighting Irish, a young (three of their top four scorers are freshman) but dangerous squad. Notre Dame entered the contest a relatively lowly 7-6, but with a combined margin of defeat of just 3 goals between No. 5 North Carolina (a team that beat Northwestern by five) and No. 2 Boston College. The Wildcats handed them their largest margin of defeat on the season with a thorough 20-10 victory.
Despite early defensive struggles in losses to North Carolina and top-ranked Stony Brook, and offensive woes that mainly manifested in a head-scratching 9-8 defeat early in the season at the hands of #19 Duke, the Wildcats seem to be firing on all cylinders right now. Sheila Nesselbush remained the hottest player in the Big Ten, adding a whopping nine goals to her tally for a total of 21 over just the last six games, while junior Selena Lasota reached the 200-goal mark on her career with nine of her own. Defensively, the Wildcats stayed disciplined, not receiving a single penalty on the weekend while their opponents combined for six, and allowed 44 shots over the two games (while getting off 86 of their own).
However, the toughest part of the Wildcats’ Big Ten slate is yet to come. The two remaining undefeated Big Ten teams, Penn State and Maryland, each will have home-field advantage in their matches with Northwestern, whose only remaining home game is with struggling Rutgers. The Nittany Lions have struggled so far this season, but they are ever-dangerous, and, even if the Wildcats are up to that challenge, the Terrapins loom. Maryland has won the Big Ten each year of its existence, and have two of the last three national titles in their trophy case. Northwestern will have its hands full with the talented, third-ranked Terrapins, but this year they have the mixture of experience and youth they need to finally take them down in what should be a climactic final game of the regular season.
The Wildcats have seen second round exits in the NCAA Tournament in each of the past two years, and have watched Maryland hover above them in conference play. But the once-dominant program is riding a six-game winning streak, and their sights are set on reclaiming the national dominance they once had.