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How Northwestern lacrosse can defeat its biggest challengers

The ‘Cats have been stellar, but here’s how they can be perfect.

Griffin Quinn/Northwestern Athletics

Every Achilles has its heel. Or, at least, relative weaknesses.

Northwestern may have the best offense in the country. It may just shatter the single-season points record and have its first Tewaaraton Winner since 2011, but with the expectation being a national championship, Kelley Amonte Hiller is looking to perfect every aspect of play.

The No. 2 team in the country has only lost once, falling to No. 1 Syracuse by one goal in the first game of the season. Since, it has been absolutely lethal, defeating North Carolina, Stony Brook and Boston College — teams ranked in the top five headed into the year. With the regular season winding down, the Big Ten Tournament and NCAAs are where the focus is; specifically, fielding a team that can take down teams like Maryland, Syracuse, Denver, James Madison and North Carolina. To do that, Northwestern needs to solidify its defense and make the most of possession opportunities.

As arguably the best team in the nation, the Wildcats have evidently performed well all over the field— but when the goal is a title, any and all improvement, no matter the extent, should be made.

The Defense

The Wildcats’ defense has come a long way since the 16-15 loss to Syracuse.

Sammy White, Carleigh Mahoney and Kendall Halpern have effectively limited scoring opportunities and have served as huge assets to goalkeeper Molly Laliberty. Halpern was sidelined for the Syracuse and Notre Dame games, and with her return came a new team — she leads in caused turnovers with 21, alongside White.

In terms of scoring defense, Northwestern is 20th, holding teams to 9.5 goals per game. This is respectable, but Denver is first, limiting opponents to just 5.9 goals; James Madison is third and Syracuse is 10th. The ‘Cats certainly have the talent to restrain teams, but goal prevention needs to be solidified. For much of this season, Northwestern has been able to rely on racking up goals. This team has the ability to outscore anyone by drastic deficits, but when the best offense goes up against the next-best offenses, it’s not enough to find the back of the net.

The Draw

Possession is everything, and as a result, the draw is one of the most critical parts of the game. The best teams are efficient: when they get the ball, they score.

Northwestern has found success thanks to sophomore Samantha Smith stepping into the shoes of Jill Girardi, but the draw isn’t necessarily dominated by the ‘Cats. They do average 17.36 draw controls per game for the sixth-most in the country, but this team also scores a lot, thus garnering more opportunities.

NU’s draw control percentage is .572, which is ranked 17th. The ‘Cats are winning possession most of the time, but for reference, No. 10 Maryland and No. 3 Denver have the second and third-best averages with .628 and .627, respectively. Both programs play top-tier quality lacrosse, so if Northwestern finds itself facing those teams come May, the draw can win or lose the game.

The draw certainly came up big against UNC, where the 14-to-12 advantage was revealed in the final score, or in a one-goal game against Boston College, where the ‘Cats had 16 to the Eagles’ 17 — with more possessions, the contest wouldn’t have been as close. In games against Stony Brook and Albany, where Northwestern did manage to win in dominating fashion, however, it fell behind on the draw. Against attacks that are just as strong, like the third-ranked scoring offense of Syracuse, being on the disadvantaged side is threatening.

With 85 draw controls, Smith has proved she can excel at the role, but being sure to surround her with other fast, gritty players who can grab the ball — like Madison Taylor, Samantha Smith, Emerson Bohlig— is key.

The Turnovers

Another aspect of the game that could set Northwestern apart is reducing turnovers.

The ‘Cats have had at least 15 turnovers eight times this season, putting up a high of 22 against Penn State. While North Carolina and Stony Brook have the fewest turnovers in the country with 8.92 and 10.08, respectively Northwestern is 13th, averaging 12.6 a game. This is just lower than the marks of James Madison, Maryland and Syracuse. Reducing how frequently possessions change could advance this team even more.

Turnovers come the most from Taylor, Hailey Rhatigan, Izzy Scane and Erin Coykendall — the squad’s fear-inducing offensive leaders. Northwestern utilizes a combination of quick, flick passes, and while that has proved effective, lowering the pace or tweaking plays to ensure cleaner passes and shots could have a huge impact.

The Offense

Any success Northwestern finds will be attributed to its offense. While the draw, defense and turnover rate could be just a little bit better, the attack is, quite honestly, near perfect. At 409 points through 15 games, breaking Syracuse’s 2008 record of 541 points through 21 games is very feasible.

Having four incredible shooters in Scane, Taylor, Rhatigan and Coykendall makes this team a nightmare for any defense. All four can’t be face-guarded at once, so a team may shut down Scane, but then someone else is scoring multiple goals and becomes the biggest threat in the next quarter.

In Boston College, Scane didn’t score until the second half — she ended up with four goals anyhow — but her absence allowed Dylan Amonte and Taylor to shine. Against Albany, Rhatigan scored all four of her goals after the three-minute mark in the third quarter, and Scane put up four after being held for the first and most of the second quarter. Because of how deep NU’s roster is, these players can only be contained for so long.

Looking Ahead

Behind Syracuse and Northwestern in the rankings are Denver, James Madison and North Carolina. Northwestern may be most on-par with Syracuse, but these other teams should not be underestimated. UNC did suffer losses to Northwestern and Notre Dame, but with the history between these two powerhouses, anything could happen. Further, Denver and James Madison may not have been projected to find this much success, but they have proved their talent in ranked wins.

On April 22, the ‘Cats will take on No. 10 Maryland to close out the regular season, but the Terps will likely reappear in Northwestern’s path in the Big Ten Tournament or NCAAs. NU has, of course, proved its talent, but facing an elite squad that excels on defense and the draw is a valuable challenge.

The plain and simple truth is that Northwestern is an incredible team with talent all around. For the ‘Cats, their standard is perfection. Asking NU to dominate the draw and limit goals even more is just a testament to the squad’s ability to reach new heights and take home a championship.