On Saturday, No. 2 Northwestern took to Martin Stadium for a quarterfinal matchup against No. 8 Duke. While the Blue Devils were able to jump out to a surprising 6-1 lead, the ‘Cats once again proved just how special they are, as the nation’s leading offense took over and closed on a 11-2 run to end the first half and enter the break with a four-point lead.
“We just have this unwavering will to win,” Senior attacker Lauren Gilbert said. “I never doubt in a game that we’re going to come out on top, and I don’t think anyone [on the team] does.”
That will to win has been on full display throughout this entire season, as Northwestern is undefeated at 15-0 going into this weekend’s NCAA final four. Tomorrow, they will face No. 3 Syracuse in a semifinal matchup.
Just like Gilbert said, the ‘Cats never wavered in the face of an intimidating deficit during the game’s early action. Gilbert herself tallied a game-high six goals, while Junior attacker and Tewaaraton Award favorite Izzy Scane added five to close out the game 22-10 and secure the 12th final four appearance in program history.
Through this season, ‘Cats fans have been able to see the same stardom and inklings of the dynasty that Northwestern Women’s Lacrosse truly is. Even during the few contests that have come down to close calls, the ‘Cats never doubted they would come out on top, trusting their NCAA-best offense, averaging 20.60 goals per game.
Last weekend’s quarterfinal matchup against Duke was a true testament to this, especially facing draw specialist Maddie Jenner, one of the nation’s leaders in draw controls.
“[We had multiple answers for Jenner], we have Jill Girardi, we have Brennan Dwyer, we’ve got Lindsey McKone,” Hiller said. “At this point in the season, every team we’re going to play against has great draw people. That’s just what it takes to be at this level, and we’re going to have to bring it on Friday night as well.”
Given that last season’s NCAA tournament was cancelled due to COVID, the ‘Cats have now made back-to-back appearance in the final four, as they made it in 2019 where they ultimately lost to Maryland in the championship game.
This year, the ‘Cats have a different perspective. Since the 2020 season was canceled, the team feels a special sense of gratitude just to be able to play another day.
“Just thinking back to [the fall], we had to social distance, we could only partner pass. We had no idea if a season would come,” said Head Coach Kelly Amonte Hiller following the win. “We didn’t get our schedule until a week before the season, and then we were just elated to have the opportunity to play. So, for us, we’re not taking anything for granted. The fact that I can say we’re going to the Final Four, I’m not sure any of us would have imagined that when we first came back in the fall.”
For Hiller, she has seen her fair share of dominant Northwestern teams, having won a staggering seven championships as head coach, with the last being in 2012. Other than her own alma mater of the University of Maryland, success for women’s lacrosse in the Big Ten is a rarity. In fact, the three other remaining teams in the NCAA Tournament are all members of the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) — No. 1 University of North Carolina, No. 3 Syracuse and No. 4 Boston College.
“We kind of had a feeling that we were going to start facing these teams in the playoffs,” Gilbert said. “I think a lot of people like to talk about the difference between the ACC and the Big Ten, but at the end of the day it’s just another team for us to compete against.”
Gilbert, a member of the 2019 campaign when the ‘Cats made a run to the championship game, says that they have had a chip on their shoulder ever since.
“I think it’s key to have so many veterans on this team who were there in 2019 at the Final Four, because I think there was a little bit of a shock to the system that year when we stepped onto the field in the Final Four and the final,” Gilbert said. “We’re not going to have that shock when we step out onto the field anymore. We’re just going to have certainty and belief in each other that’s been cultivated over the past two years.”
Since that 2019 season, the team has grown even more dominant behind the superstar ascension of Scane. Her impressive 60 goals scored across 20 games in her freshman campaign somehow pales in comparison to her 2021 season, as she has racked 94 goals in just 15 games and continually inches closer to breaking the NCAA record of 100 set by Courtney Murphy of Stony Brook back in 2016.
Both Scane and her teammates knew that they had to keep pressing if they wanted to reach their fullest potential.
“The main focus was, eventually we’re going to get out of this and eventually we’re going to be back on the field,” said Scane as she reflected on the dream season. “And [we knew] we can either step back and take our foot off the gas, or we can collectively as a group, work hard and make sure when we do we’re the ones who have been [working the hardest] over this time period of uncertainty.”
The ‘Cats will take to the field at Johnny Unitas Stadium in Towson, Maryland, on Friday for their semifinal matchup against Syracuse at 1 P.M CT on ESPNU, and should they advance, they will face the winner of UNC and Boston College in the national championship on Sunday.
Fifteen games of greatness completed, Northwestern sits on the doorstep of a crowning achievement, with only two obstacles left in their path. Only two victories between them and title number eight.