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Northwestern Lacrosse’s fifth-years have unfinished business

The Lakeshow’s graduate students hope to achieve their ultimate goal of a national championship in their final season.

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In what would be the final game of her senior season, Lauren Gilbert only scored once. Coming off a six-goal performance in the quarterfinals, the Oregon native found herself in foul trouble and lacked her usual offensive spark against No. 3 Syracuse in the Final Four. Without an extra year of eligibility because of COVID-19, that heartbreaking 21-13 loss would have been her last game in a Northwestern uniform.

After the dust settled, Gilbert alongside teammates Jill Girardi, Ally Palermo and Brennan Dwyer announced they would all return for a fifth and final year.

Two-hundred-and-fifty days after the defeat in Towson, Gilbert was out for revenge. The Orange, still No. 3 in the country, visited Evanston for a regular-season rematch and the ‘Cats dealt them a dish best served cold.

Northwestern rallied from a four-goal deficit to tie the game in the final minute of regulation. In overtime at Ryan Fieldhouse, Gilbert secured the extra period draw control and netted her seventh goal of the game to tie her career-high and take down the same team that had spoiled the Wildcats’ undefeated 2021 season.

“That’s what we came back to do,” Gilbert said. “To avenge a loss like that was pretty sweet, and we want more victories like that.”

Over their four complete seasons as Wildcats, this quartet has been to two NCAA Final Fours, won two Big Ten tournaments and one regular-season conference championship. Northwestern’s combined record since they’ve been on the roster is a whopping 63-17, never losing to an unranked opponent.

Now graduate students, the four have grown with the program over time, from losing in the NCAA quarterfinals as freshmen in 2018 to making back-to-back Final Fours in 2019 and 2021, barring 2020’s canceled postseason.

But, their ultimate goal has yet to be accomplished: winning a national title.

While the team has evidently changed since that fatal Final Four matchup, including a devastating preseason injury to leading scorer Izzy Scane, the fifth-years have led the team gracefully through all the challenges it has faced this year so far.

This season, Girardi has embraced a larger role on attack alongside her spot in the draw circle. She’s totaled 42 goals this season, 10 more than her four previous years combined. This opportunity has allowed her to work more closely with Gilbert as well.

“It’s been really great to use our creativity together and work on our connections on the offensive end,” Girardi said.

Off the field, they have also been able to guide and lead the younger players.

“Since they’ve all been through it before, they are a guiding presence to the younger girls on the team,” said sophomore attacker Leah Holmes. “They bring experience and know what it takes to be successful.”

After practice, the four of them are often the last to enter the locker room, sticking around to help pick up equipment or talk to Coach Kelly Amonte Hiller. The experience they bring to this team includes a blueprint on what to do when things don’t go their way, a prime example of which happened twice in the last two weeks when the ‘Cats fell to Maryland and Rutgers.

“We really lean on each other when things get tough, but it’s also really special when we get to celebrate these big moments with each other,” Palermo said. “We’re able to show the whole team that no matter what we’ve gone through, we will push through it together as a group and make it through.”

Looking ahead at the opportunity for another deep postseason run beginning this weekend, the veterans are looking for more — and their team is behind them.

“Now it’s really win or go home, and especially for our fifth-years and some of our seniors,” said junior attacker Erin Coykendall. “We’re playing for them, too.”

The quest for these four graduate students’ ultimate goal begins today, with a first-round matchup at home against Central Michigan.

“They feel that they have some unfinished business,” Amonte Hiller said. “They’re doing everything they can to represent this program and grow each day, and will continue to grow in the postseason.”