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Top 10 Northwestern sports moments of the 2010s

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It’s been a wild decade.

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From the 2013 Iron Bowl shocker, to LeBron James’ game-saving Game 7 block, to so much more, this decade has offered up its fair share of exhilarating sports moments across just about every league in existence.

So where do Northwestern sports fit into the mix?

While this university has never seen a basketball player with talent like LeBron or had a football team ranked fourth in the country (in recent memory), this decade contained the most well-rounded and complete set of Northwestern sports teams the school has ever seen.

Those teams, in turn, created some unbelievable moments that the fanbase will never forget. But which ones were the best?

Before we dive in and our readers start readying the hot takes, let me provide a few disclaimers about the methods we used:

  1. Football and men’s basketball aren’t the only Northwestern sports teams. Are you only a fan of football and basketball and refuse to follow any other sport? If so, you’re missing out, because a good amount of NU’s success this decade came from outside of Ryan Field and Welsh-Ryan (that’s not to say football and basketball won’t be included in this list, though). Just a heads up.
  2. Individual accomplishments are great, but less noteworthy than a team accomplishment. Again, this is not to say that individual accomplishments won’t be included, but team and program accomplishments will be prioritized above them. In terms of team accomplishments, postseason accomplishments matter plenty, but so does making history. I hope we can all agree on that.
  3. Surpassing expectations is key. If a team went on a big run when they weren’t expected to, that moment’s position will be bumped further up the list.

Now that those are listed, let’s jump into this Top 10 list. Enjoy!

#10: Field Hockey wins the Big Ten Championship (Nov. 9, 2014)

The 2014 season was a fun one for head coach Tracey Fuchs and the ‘Cats.

In just the second game of the year, they fell in a heartbreaking overtime loss to #3 UConn. Later on, though, they shocked #2 Maryland at home. Northwestern finished the regular season with a 16-7 record, going 6-2 in conference play to finish tied for second in the Big Ten.

NU then went on to defeat three top-15 teams in the Big Ten tournament. In the first round, they took down #15 Iowa 2-1. After that, the ‘Cats knocked out the hosts, #12 Michigan, in overtime, by the same score. In the final, they upset #2 Maryland again, by a score of 3-1, and were crowned Big Ten champions for the first time since 1988 (the Big Ten Tournament did not exist at that point, so we are including both regular season and postseason titles).

Following their conference championship, Northwestern fell in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to #9 Duke. The loss, though unfortunate, obviously did not even remotely lessen their remarkable accomplishments.

#9: Women’s basketball makes a run to the WNIT Final (March 21-April 6, 2019)

The 2018-19 women’s basketball regular season was fairly uneventful for the Wildcats. They pulled off a few upsets over the likes of Michigan State, Duke and Indiana, but finished the the season at just 16-13, going 9-9 in conference play, before getting blown out by those same Spartans in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. For the fourth season in a row, the ‘Cats were left out of the NCAA Tournament, receiving a spot in the postseason WNIT.

After injuries and poorly timed struggles at points throughout the regular season never allowed them to really establish any momentum, Northwestern wasn’t expected to do anything special in the 64-team tournament. They did receive a first round home game against Dayton, though, which they won handily, 74-51.

The ‘Cats then went on the road for their next two games, beating both Toledo and West Virginia in impressive fashion, the latter on a phenomenal comeback. In the quarterfinal, they returned to Welsh-Ryan Arena to face lower-seeded Ohio, winning 61-58 behind 22 points from Lindsay Pulliam.

Now, in the semifinal, NU had to hit the road yet again and face James Madison, winning a fun one 74-69. Unfortunately, the ‘Cats fell just short of a WNIT title, as they lost to Arizona (again on the road) in front of a capacity crowd in the championship game. Regardless, the wild and wacky run had everything, and served as a fitting capper to Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah’s marvelous Northwestern career while allowing the rest of the squad some momentum heading into this season.

#8: Softball goes to the NCAA Super Regionals (May 24-25, 2019)

If last year’s softball season was a sign of things to come, the ‘Cats should be extremely excited about 2020.

Hopes were somewhat high for Northwestern softball heading into the 2018-19 year, and they fully delivered. The Wildcats posted an extremely impressive 42-9 regular season mark, including a 21-2 conference record, behind both a national freshman of the year on the mound in Danielle Williams and an incredibly balanced lineup from top to bottom.

In the Big Ten tournament, NU defeated Indiana 2-0 before falling to #12 Minnesota in the second round. Then came regionals.

Due to their impressive regular season performance, the ‘Cats were selected as the final NCAA Regional host and the #16 seed, achieving the honor for the first time in a decade. In their first regional game they dismantled Detroit Mercy by a score of 15-1. They fell to Louisville 2-1 in their second game, but due to the double-elimination structure, the Wildcats got their second chance, defeating Southern Illinois in the losers bracket, then defeating Louisville twice on Sunday (in remarkable fashion) to move on.

With their regional victory, Northwestern advanced to their first NCAA Super Regional since 2008. Unfortunately, the ‘Cats fell to top-seeded and eventual national runner-up Oklahoma in two games, but finished the season with plenty of momentum and made some history while they were at it.

#7: Women’s soccer reaches the Sweet 16 (November 2016)

The 2016 women’s team was undoubtedly the best soccer side to grace Lakeside Field this decade.

Early on, the team won the JMU Tournament, defeating VCU and James Madison by scores of 1-0 and 3-0, respectively. The ‘Cats went on to secure a 14-1-3 regular season record, going 7-1-3 in conference play, behind an unreal defense. With Kayla Sharples and Hannah Davison anchoring things at center back and Lauren Clem standing strong in goal, NU allowed a laughable seven goals in 23 total matches on the year, while also achieving two of the program’s five longest scoreless streaks of all time.

The ‘Cats went on to earn a share of the Big Ten title for the first time in program history with an overtime win over Illinois in the regular season’s final game. In the conference tournament, Northwestern won their first game over Nebraska 4-3 on penalty kicks, but unfortunately fell in their second game, losing 1-0 to Rutgers. Regardless, their strong regular season was more than enough to get them a spot in the NCAA Tournament.

In the first round, the Wildcats hosted Kent State at Lakeside Field, winning with ease, 3-0. Then, rather than facing #2 seed Notre Dame, the ‘Cats went up against surprise team SIU-Edwardsville, who upset Notre Dame on penalty kicks in the first round. Northwestern took care of business against SIUE, and moved onto the Sweet 16 for the first time in nearly 20 years. Finally, they fell to #3 seed Duke, 1-0.

In the end, it was a great run and a great, history-making season for Wildcat women’s soccer.

#6: Football - The ‘Cats’ remarkable Holiday Bowl comeback (Dec. 31, 2018)

Am I potentially placing this game too high? Absolutely.

At the same time, is it justifiable? Yes, and opinion might even swing the other way. I’m anticipating this being one of the most volatile sections on the list.

Here’s why: the comeback was unbelievable. After falling behind 20-3 at halftime, the ‘Cats came out and posted 28 points in the third quarter alone. One of the four touchdowns came on an 82-yard fumble return by Jared McGee, which absolutely lit up the Northwestern fans in attendance in rainy San Diego. The second half was extremely fun to watch, and it earned NU a thoroughly impressive bowl victory against a high-level opponent.

So, then, why isn’t it higher? It was a great bowl win, but ultimately still only that, thanks to the Big Ten Championship loss. Additionally, while the victory appeared at the time to be a good momentum boost heading into this season, that clearly wasn’t the case. As much as I don’t want to take away from how great of a comeback this was, this season’s disappointments certainly impacted the Holiday Bowl comeback’s placement.

#5: Women’s golf bolts to the National Championship (May 2017)

It isn’t difficult to figure out why this moment makes an appearance within the top five of this list.

Can’t figure it out? Two words: national finalists.

The women’s golf team is no stranger to success, as they went to NCAA Regionals every year this decade and advanced to the NCAA Championships in five of them. That being said, the 2016-17 season was special. At the Big Ten Championship, the ‘Cats finished second, with junior Hannah Kim winning the Mary Fossum Award (given to the Big Ten golfer with the lowest season stroke average relative to par).

The Wildcats soon moved on to NCAA Regionals, where they, once again, finished second out of 18 teams, good enough to advance to the Championships. Once they got there, the ‘Cats really shined, cruising to the quarterfinals and continuing to make noise once they got to match play.

In the quarterfinals, Northwestern took on Kent State, defeating them by a score of 3-2. In the semis, the ‘Cats took down USC by the same score, this time thanks to a dramatic late comeback. It wasn’t until the final of the NCAA Championships that NU fell to Arizona State by a final score of 3-1-1 They may not have won, but Northwestern’s phenomenal run created a moment truly worthy of being top five on this list.

#4: Football - ‘Cats clinch the Big Ten West (Nov. 10, 2018)

I’m sure we all remember this game.

I’m sure we all remember its sloppy brilliance.

I’m sure we all remember Bennett Skowronek’s game-winning catch that will forever go down in Northwestern lore.

Winning games at Kinnick Stadium is no easy feat (just ask Ohio State!). That being said, the ‘Cats marched into on this cold November day knowing they were a win away from their first ever Big Ten West title. And win they did.

Freshman running back Isaiah Bowser led the way for Northwestern, carrying the ball 31 times for 165 yards and one touchdown after the Wildcats largely failed to get the passing game going. Bowser’s play, paired with an extremely stout defensive outing and one incredible catch, led NU to clinch their first ever spot in the Big Ten Championship Game. Turns out, the ugliness was a perfect summation of a decade of Northwestern football. We wouldn’t have had it any other way.

#3: Football - The 2013 Gator Bowl victory (Jan. 1, 2013)

The Wildcats came into the 2013 Gator Bowl searching for their first postseason victory since all the way back in 1949, when they defeated California in the Rose Bowl.

Pat Fitzgerald and co. had had their fair share of attempts at winning bowls since the head coach took over in 2006. In 2008, the Wildcats went to the Alamo Bowl. In 2010, the Outback Bowl. In 2011, both the Meineke Car Care Bowl and the TicketCity Bowl (one game was a part of the 2010-11 season, one was in 2011-12). All of these games ended in somewhat close losses, with two going to overtime.

The 2013 Gator Bowl, though, ended that streak.

Northwestern matched up against Dan Mullen’s Mississippi State Bulldogs, who started the season 7-0 but quickly fell off in conference play. On the first drive of the game, Quentin Williams intercepted a pass from Bulldogs QB Tyler Russell, returning it 29 yards for a Northwestern touchdown.

After Miss St. tied the game heading into halftime, the ‘Cats came out strong on the ground, as three different players — Trevor Siemian, former walk-on Tyris Jones, and Venric Mark — all scored rushing touchdowns. That was enough to seal a 34-20 victory for Northwestern against a talented SEC opponent.

It may not seem like much compared to some of the other entrants on this list, but this game was a key precursor to clinching the Big Ten West five years later, showcasing the Wildcats’ ability to actually win their biggest game of the season. Hence, its higher placement.

#2: Men’s basketball - “The Pass,” and what followed (March 2017)

If you don’t know which pass I’m talking about, let me ring some bells.

“PARDON, WITH THE CATCH! THE FINISH! AND THE CATS WIN IT!”

Recognize that call? At the end of a pivotal home game vs. Michigan, Nate Taphorn and Dererk Pardon created history that Wildcat basketball fans will never forget.

While the original play (massive credit to Brian James) was amazing, it meant even more in the grand scheme of things. Here’s why:

  • Prior to the Michigan game, the ‘Cats had dropped two tough games at Illinois and at Indiana, before only being saved from a truly embarrassing home loss to Rutgers by the skin of Bryant McIntosh’s teeth. With the win against Michigan, Northwestern ensured they would go over .500 in conference play, an extreme historical rarity for the program.
  • The win against Michigan meant the ‘Cats were a lock for the NCAA Tournament according to just about every big-name bracketologist out there.

In short, if it weren’t for that play, had Northwestern gone and lost this game in overtime, they may not have made the tournament. Chris Collins’ squad was, arguably, slowly collapsing prior to its seminal moment, but that collapse flipped on its head instantly.

Following the play, the ‘Cats suffered a close loss to Purdue in their final game of the regular season, but then went on to win two Big Ten Tournament games. Not only did the Wildcats get into the NCAA Tournament for the first time ever (securing a #8 seed in the West region), they won their first ever tournament game in a victory over #9 seed Vanderbilt. The ‘Cats even gave #1 seed Gonzaga a major scare in the second round (not talking about how that ended).

It’s simple: The Pass is not only one of the greatest Northwestern sports moments of the decade, it’s one of the best in history.

So what could possibly top it? First, let’s get to some honorable mentions.

Honorable Mentions

The following moments are a collection of crazy plays, heartwarming moments, individual/team accomplishments and fun games that I simply couldn’t find a place for on this list.

Women’s basketball makes the NCAA tournament (2015)

Prior to 2015, the Wildcats hadn’t reached the NCAA tournament since 1997. Due in large part to the scoring of sophomore Nia Coffey, who averaged 15.5 PPG on the season, the shooting of Christen Inman and co., and a ferocious defense led by Ashley Deary, the ‘Cats finished with a 22-7 regular season record, ranking #22 in the AP Poll and reaching the second round of the Big Ten tournament before falling to top-seeded Maryland.

Not long after, Northwestern was placed as the #7 seed in the Big Dance. They drew Arkansas in the first round, a team that went 16-12 in the regular season and just 6-10 in SEC play. The ‘Cats were favorites , but a win simply wasn’t in the cards. The Razorbacks forced 19 turnovers and overcame a 13-point deficit in the second half to down NU 57-55.

Football - The Big Ten title game (Dec. 1 , 2018)

Making the Big Ten title game was great for the program, but aside from the a long TD from John Moten IV and a mesmerizing start to the third quarter, the game was relatively disappointing. In the end, Ohio State poured on the touchdowns and ran away with the game in garbage time, winnning 45-24. Regardless, a fun moment for sure, and one we may not see again for a while.

Women’s basketball - Joe McKeown gets his 700th career win (Dec. 20, 2019)

In what is one of the most recent moments on this list, women’s basketball head coach Joe McKeown secured his 700th career coaching victory in a 64-45 victory over East Carolina. An individual accomplishment, yes, but certainly one worth celebrating. With the win, McKeown moved into the top 35 winningest women’s college basketball coaches.

Softball - Danielle Williams wins NFCA National Freshman of the Year (May 28, 2019)

Another recent moment, another individual accomplishment. After finishing the season with 31 wins, 13 shutouts and a 1.55 ERA, freshman Danielle Williams was awarded the honor of NFCA National Freshman of the Year, given to the best Division I softball freshman in the country. Williams became the first player in the Big Ten to ever earn the honor.

Baseball - ‘Cats make shocking run to the Big Ten title game (May 24-28, 2017)

After posting a mediocre 24-28 regular season record, the ‘Cats received the #7 seed in the Big Ten tournament. Rather than dipping out in the first round, as was expected, Northwestern defeated Michigan 6-4, Minnesota 11-7 and Maryland 6-5 (in their second game) before finally falling to #5 seed Iowa in the final, just missing out on the crucial NCAA Tournament auto-bid. Still, the run was magical.

Men’s basketball says goodbye to the old Welsh-Ryan Arena (March 5, 2017)

Just four days after “The Pass”, the ‘Cats played their final game at the old Welsh-Ryan, hosting #15 Purdue in front of a capacity crowd. CBS televised the game, with Jim Nantz and Phil Simms on the call. Northwestern hung around late in the game before losing 69-65, but the atmosphere remained one of the best that any Northwestern venue has ever seen.

Football - Gameday comes to Evanston (2013)

Following a 4-0 start to the season, Northwestern football played host to #4 Ohio State on Homecoming. Northwestern, who sat at #16 in the AP Poll, also hosted College Gameday on campus for the first time ever. Unfortunately, Lee Corso donned Brutus on his head rather than Willie, and he was right. In the end, NU fell to Ohio State by a score of 40-30, thanks in no small part to a...controversial...call, and began a downward spiral that they didn’t fully escape for two years.

Men’s basketball - Tre Demps’ heroics help ‘Cats down Michigan in 2OT (March 3, 2015)

Northwestern and Michigan love playing crazy basketball games. Down late in the second half, Tre Demps hit a game-saving three to send the game to overtime. With 16 seconds left in overtime, the ‘Cats trailed 71-65, but this time Demps decided to hit TWO threes to keep the game alive. In double overtime, the Wildcats were able to close it out, winning 82-78. Demps finished with 20 points and five assists on 7-13 shooting.

Women’s basketball - Community comes together following the death of Jordan Hankins (Jan. 14, 2017)

Following the tragic death of Northwestern student and women’s basketball player Jordan Hankins, the community came together and sold out Welsh-Ryan for the first women’s basketball game following the tragedy. Every player wore Hankins’ #5 in warmups to honor her, with Amber Jamison, her closest friend on the team, donning the jersey in-game. The ‘Cats defeated Indiana by a final score of 80-67, with Jamison scoring 13 points in just 17 minutes.

Women’s swimming/diving - Olivia Rosendahl wins back-to-back national championships (2017/2018)

Northwestern does not even have a ten meter platform available on campus, but that didn’t stop star Wildcat diver Olivia Rosendahl from winning consecutive national championships at that height in her sophomore and junior seasons with the program. Rosendahl’s repeat performance in 2018 was especially impressive — she came in as the fourth seed but beat the field by more than ten points. Certainly one of the more remarkable individual careers of the decade.

Women’s tennis - Big Ten Championship (2018)

Coach Claire Pollard and the Wildcats won a few of these titles over the course of the decade, In 2018, though, they hadn’t won in three years after achieving either a regular season or tournament conference championship (or both) in each of the preceding 17 seasons. Seniors Alex Chatt, Maddie Lipp, and Erin Larner led the way to set that right, taking down Michigan 4-3 to secure the trophy’s return to Evanston.

Now, without further ado, to reveal the #1 Northwestern sports moment of the decade...

#1: Women’s lacrosse secures back-to-back national championship titles (2011-2012)

When you take a look at the all-time great sports dynasties to ever exist, there’s Alabama football, the Patriots, and, if you are paying enough attention, Northwestern women’s lacrosse.

That’s right. Head coach Kelly Amonte Hiller and her Wildcats had one of the greatest dynasties to ever exist in sports during the late 2000s and early 2010s.

From 2005-09, the ‘Cats won BACK-TO-BACK-TO-BACK-TO-BACK-TO-BACK national championships. In 2010, they took a year off by merely losing in the final game to top-seeded Maryland. While those first five years may not be eligible for this decade, 2011 and 2012 certainly are, and the trophies in those years after the 2010 setback are arguably even more impressive.

In 2011, after losing in the national championship the year prior, Northwestern returned to the NCAA tournament as the #2 seed. Once again, they faced Maryland in the championship game, this time winning 8-7 and securing their sixth title in seven years.

Fast forward to 2012, and the Wildcats were back yet again as the #2. They defeated Maryland in the semifinals 9-7, then beat #4 seed Syracuse by a score of 8-6 to secure their SEVENTH. TITLE. IN. EIGHT. YEARS.

Things may have tapered off slightly from there, but those are the only two team national championships of the decade. Undoubtedly, lacrosse’s dominant performance was worth of the top slot in our rankings.

With the ‘Cats even winning the Big Ten championship and returned to the NCAA Final Four this past season, maybe a new dynasty is in the works. Regardless, the cap to this dynasty surpasses anything any other team did during the 2010s. Here’s hoping a few teams join lacrosse on that national pedestal moving forward!

Did I miss anything? Want to tweet me about it and express your anger? Feel free to do so, you can find me on Twitter @MacStone00. If you don’t have Twitter, feel free to air your grievances in the comments below. Thanks for reading!