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For Northwestern’s four graduate stars, five years of impact are greater than a single afternoon of defeat

Lauren Gilbert, Jill Girardi, Brennan Dwyer and Ally Palermo left it all on the field.

When it rains, it pours.

That was clear yesterday in Baltimore when a weather delay threw an hour-and-a-half-long wrench into No. 4 Northwestern’s Final Four matchup versus No. 1 UNC. It was clear when the ‘Cats poured on six unanswered goals in the first quarter.

It was even more clear when the Tar Heels hammered away an eight-goal deficit with a run of its own, dealing the Lakeshow its toughest loss in recent memory on the sport's biggest stage.

There’s no point in rehashing what happened in that final quarter. Those watching felt the heartbreak emanating from Northwestern’s sideline when the final whistle blew, whether they experienced it in person or through a screen.

The story worth telling is one of the four graduate students, all of whom experienced three Final Fours, sans a National Championship berth. Lauren Gilbert, Jill Girardi, Brennan Dwyer and Ally Palermo had unfinished business heading into what would be their final game in a Northwestern uniform. But, not every story has a happy ending, and what fills the penultimate chapters is just as important as the ultimate finale.

“This group really came together more than I’ve seen in the past,” Palermo said in the post-game press conference. “We all wanted it really bad, and we put all the work and effort into ourselves and our relationships. That’s what got us to this point.”

In 2022 alone, they offered a combined 80 starts in 21 games, with Gilbert the lone fifth-year in the lineup for every contest. They posted a leader in every third of the field — Gilbert on attack, Girardi and Dwyer in the circle and Palermo on defense — for their teammates to rely on. They avenged last year’s Final Four loss to Syracuse, not once, but twice, and they did it together.

Their combined record over five years with the program is 66-18, with every single loss to a ranked opponent. They’ve set and broken records — most recently, Girardi breaking Dwyer’s 2019 single-season record for draw controls won in the semifinal matchup. Three of them are 2022 All-Americans, and all four have achieved All-Big Ten Team honors at some point in their careers.

“They’ve really established our dominance in the lacrosse community,” Amonte Hiller said. “They played fearless and aggressive from the start, and I’m proud of our leadership.”

It’s not unheard of in women’s college lacrosse for teams to go several years with deep NCAA Tournament runs and not win a national championship. Boston College — the defending champions — lost three straight NCAA title games in a row before taking home the title. While their current star Charlotte North managed to raise the trophy, BC legends Sam Apuzzo, Kenzie Kent and Dempsey Arsenault finished their careers in the 2019 Championship on a two-goal loss.

What Girardi, Gilbert, Dwyer and Palermo have done is help build a program that is once again capable of returning to the Final Four, year after year. Before their first season at Northwestern in 2018, the Wildcats had not been to a semifinal in three years. As freshmen, they helped NU to its first quarterfinal since 2015 before ultimately losing — and they never allowed that to happen again, leading the ‘Cats to three straight Final Fours after the fact.

Sure, two Big Ten Tournament championships and one regular-season title may not match up to hoisting the coveted NCAA trophy. But, what these graduate students have done is set this team up for success years beyond their departure. So, whatever titles do end up in the hands of Northwestern’s lacrosse players in the future is, in large part, due to the impact they’ve had on this program since they stepped foot in Evanston, five years ago.