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Examining Jill Girardi’s breakout season

The draw control specialist has put herself not just among the conference’s best, but among the nation’s.

When Northwestern fell to Syracuse 21-13 in last year’s NCAA Tournament semifinals, one of the team’s main focuses was winning the draw. After a 2021 season in which they had performed decently well from the circle, the Wildcats’ explosive offense was effectively diffused by the Orange, who denied any chance for Northwestern to get an opportunity to score by denying the ‘Cats at the draw.

Enter Jill Girardi.

The Watertown, N.Y., native only started four games during her senior season in 2021, playing in more of a reserve role while Brennan Dwyer largely handled duties from the circle. In 2022 so far, Girardi has not only taken over the primary job as a draw control specialist, but she has morphed into one of the best in the country.

In 16 games last year, Girardi was second on the team to Dwyer with 69 draw controls while adding three goals. Now, the graduate student is second in the country in draw controls per game. Girardi has racked up 149 wins in the circle in 14 games, good for an average of 10.64 per outing. Not only has she made the leap in winning the draw, but she’s become a valuable asset in front of the net. After combining for just 32 goals in her first four seasons, Girardi has scored 40 goals this season alone, trailing only fellow graduate student Lauren Gilbert on the team.

Girardi’s progression has been crucial to the Wildcats’ success this season. With the Big Ten Tournament nearing closer, here’s how she has made a difference so far, and why her presence on the field is so important to how Northwestern fares in the postseason.

Girardi in the Circle

Northwestern only suffered one loss last year, but it was very clear that the defeat was due to a lack of offensive opportunities, beginning with the draw circle. This season, Girardi has made sure that wasn’t the case. Her expertise in the circle has directly translated to more opportunities for the ‘Cats and has been part of the reason they have been able to nearly keep up with last season’s scoring totals.

Girardi frequently has games where she gets in the zone, going on runs where she seemingly wins every draw control and doesn’t allow the opposing team any scoring chances. She has had several games this season where she earned more draws herself than the other team entirely, namely contests against Stony Brook, Dartmouth, Penn State (the Nittany Lions only won three draw controls the entire game), Rutgers and Johns Hopkins. A prime example of this “zone” was against the Blue Jays. Coming out of the half with the ‘Cats up one, Girardi contributed to Northwestern winning the third quarter in draw controls 10-1, leading to the squad outscoring Johns Hopkins 8-2 in the period.

While on the subject of single-handed domination, Girardi’s absurd 19 draw controls versus Rutgers was her best performance of the season, and one of the best performances by any NCAA lacrosse player nationwide. Not only was it the highest total in the Big Ten this year, but it’s also the second most single-game draw controls in modern Big Ten history (since 2015).

In the contests Northwestern has lost this season, Girardi has logged three of her lowest draw totals (eight vs Boston College, six vs North Carolina, seven vs Maryland). The ‘Cats and Girardi will certainly have to step up their game in the circle if they want to take down those top-tier teams in the postseason. It’s safe to say, though, Girardi has what it takes.

Girardi as a Scorer

Even if you had predicted Girardi’s meteoric rise as a draw specialist, there’s no way you would’ve been able to see her impact as a scorer on the horizon. In the span of a year, Girardi went from a three-goal season to now 40 goals and counting. She has shown up in the big games against quality opponents too, scoring four of the team’s nine goals in the season-opening loss to Boston College, as well as a season-high five scores in the comeback win against Syracuse.

As the team struggled to discover its identity early on, Girardi’s scoring was relatively inconsistent as everyone tried to figure out their roles. However, once Northwestern effectively established its three-headed scoring monster of her, Gilbert and junior Erin Coykendall, Girardi went on a tear that directly contributed to the team’s lengthy win streak. In her last seven outings, Girardi has put the ball in the back of the net a whopping 27 times.

The Bottom Line

While she had never previously been viewed as a scorer, Girardi has found her niche receiving inside feeds from Gilbert and Coykendall to become a threat to opposing defenses. Her abilities in the circle have defied expectations this season, and her development has put her in the national spotlight for what it has done with this Wildcats team. Girardi’s incredible progression from a solid reserve into one of the most important assets to the team has made Northwestern significantly better, and her success with the draw controls is what will help spur the Wildcats to the next level this postseason.