To preface, much has changed about the game of lacrosse since Northwestern won seven out of eight national championships from 2005-2012. The last time a team won back-to-back championships was in 2014 and 2015 by Maryland, showing there is much more parity in the field.
The sport itself has grown massively. What was once a northeastern-dominated sport (Northwestern is still the only team outside of the Eastern Time zone to have won a national championship) has now expanded across the country, and over thirty programs have been added to the women’s level since 2012.
That being said, here are some comparisons between this year’s newly minted top-ranked ‘Cats squad and the 2011, 2012 and 2013 teams.
2011: Sixth National Championship (21-2)
2011’s roster (and the following two as well) boasts some famous names in the lacrosse world, many of whom are still coaching or involved in the sport. Some to mention are Shannon Smith, who won the Tewaaraton Award that year and is now the head coach at Hofstra University, Erin Fitzgerald, who is now the head coach at Coastal Carolina University, Brooke Matthews (Shriver), who is now the associate head coach at Navy, and Alex Frank (McFadden), who is now the head coach at Dartmouth.
Smith led the team with 86 goals and 42 assists, with Erin Fitzgerald being the next leading goal scorer with 40 goals and seven assists. Matthews tallied 32 points that season, while Frank added 69 draw controls and 24 points.
This team pulled out numerous close wins, and its two losses came to Johns Hopkins and Florida (all were part of the former American Lacrosse Conference — ALC — which housed most programs in the early years of NCAA women’s lacrosse).
In the end, Northwestern remained victorious, cruising through the NCAA tournament over familiar programs, like Boston College and North Carolina. NU eventually took down Maryland (who was in the ACC at this point), 11-8, to win its sixth national championship. The Terps had defeated the ‘Cats in the championship the year before, so this one must have been especially sweet. As we know, this rivalry is alive and well today — Maryland would also go on to beat Northwestern in 2019 en route to their most recent NCAA championship.
2012: Seventh National Championship (21-2)
Another famed player who burst onto the scoring scene in 2012 was Taylor Thornton. She tallied 34 points, 71 draw controls and 28 caused turnovers. Thornton was named the Honda Award winner and a Tewaaraton finalist this season, as well as being named the conference player of the year. She has appeared on a few Big Ten Network games this season as an analyst.
Shannon Smith led the way this season as a senior, with 94 points, 66 goals and 28 assists, and Erin Fitzgerald followed close behind with 59 goals and nine assists as a junior.
This season, the ‘Cats’ two losses both came to Florida, the latter of which came in the ALC Championship game. Northwestern would go on to beat Notre Dame, Duke and Maryland to face Syracuse in the NCAA Championship (Sounding reminiscent again!).
They claimed their seventh national title in an 8-6 win, in which Thornton scored the game’s tie-breaking goal.
2013: Fell to UNC in Semis (19-3)
Before this week, this squad was the program’s last to be ranked No. 1 in the country.
NU lost to North Carolina and Florida in the regular season, and it fell in the national semifinals (you get the theme here) to UNC.
After the departure of Shannon Smith, Northwestern’s statistical leaders this season were Erin Fitzgerald with 59 goals and six assists and Alyssa Leonard with 37 goals, 12 assists and 125 draw controls. Leonard’s mark would be good for the program’s single-season draw control record until she broke it herself the next year with 163 draw controls.
After this season, Northwestern would go on to lose seven or more games until 2018, when they lost in the national quarterfinals to UNC.
2023: On the verge of another strong NCAA tournament run (no jinxing here.)
From 2019 until the present (void 2020, when no tournament was held), the ‘Cats have made it to the Final Four every year.
However, the team has not advanced to the championship game since its last title in 2012.
This year, the ‘Cats are as balanced as we have seen. With four attackers surpassing the 40-goal mark by the end of the regular season and six players boasting double-digit draw controls, it is pretty difficult to stop Northwestern’s offensive production and possession.
With Northwestern taking down UNC for the first time since 2014 and defeating Boston College for the first time since 2013, NU looks scary to any opponent. After already facing the other three Final Four participants from last year’s tourney (UNC, Maryland and BC) and beating them all, the ‘Cats are battle-tested.
Now, after more than a week of rest, Northwestern’s postseason will begin in the Big Ten Semifinals. Even if it doesn’t win the Big Ten tournament, after a 15-1 (6-0 B1G) regular season, NU should still expect a top-four seed in the NCAA tournament that offers it a path to winning its first championship in 11 years.