Just 90 seconds into the second quarter of the NCAA lacrosse tournament quarterfinal, Northwestern’s Izzy Scane caught a pass from her teammate Dylan Amonte just inside the 8-Meter mark. Halting to a screeching stop, Scane shook her defender by pivoting off her left foot, turning over her right shoulder to face the goal.
With nothing standing between the Tewaaraton finalist and the opposing Loyola (MD) goalie, Scane’s foot got caught on her defender, causing her to fall toward the net. Sprawled out in a Superman-like extension, Scane flicked her forearms and wrists forward, launching the ball into the back of the net.
The score was Scane’s second of the game in what would eventually be a seven-goal day, helping the Wildcats to a 16-6 victory over the Greyhounds. The win gave Northwestern its fourth consecutive Final Four berth, and although the team is ranked No. 1 in the country and earned the tournament’s top seed, the ‘Cats aren’t letting their foot off the gas.
“Every single game is an opportunity to either win or go home,” Scane said. “We’re just keeping that in the front of our brains, making sure we’re continuing to improve with the same urgencies.”
While the Wildcats have fallen short of a championship in recent years, it was once nearly impossible to knock Northwestern off the women’s lacrosse mountaintop. The program’s history is long, storied and filled with lots of rings.
In 2002, Kelly Amonte Hiller was tasked with resurrecting a Northwestern program that hadn’t competed at a varsity level since 1992.
A former four-time All-American, two-time National Player of the Year and two-time National Champion at Maryland, Amonte Hiller brought her winning ways to Evanston in a matter of years. By 2005, Northwestern had a national championship of its own, with Amonte Hiller leading the charge.
The train didn’t stop rolling there. From 2005-2009, the Wildcats won 106 games to just three losses while winning five straight national titles. In two of those years – 2005 and 2009 – Northwestern went undefeated, and outscored opponents by an average of nearly 10 goals per game over the half-decade span.
The 2010 season ended with a loss to Maryland in the title game, but the ‘Cats got revenge over the Terps just a year later, narrowly beating them in the championship, 8-7.
Dominant was the only word anyone could use to describe the Northwestern dynasty. After six titles in seven years, it seemed to most like the Wildcats’ reign would never end. Yet, Northwestern’s tenure at the top of the lacrosse world eventually culminated with the 2012 season, led by a dominant senior class and a culture that the team’s former players said motivated them to push for more and never be satisfied.
The Class of 2012 arrived at Northwestern and immediately experienced one of the best seasons in the nation’s history. The 2009 Northwestern squad still holds the NCAA record with 407 goals in a single season and won the national championship by 14 goals over North Carolina, the largest margin in a title game ever. Four first-years – Shannon Smith, Alex McFadden (then Alex Frank), Jessica Russo and Lacey Vigmostad – played in all 23 games for the ‘Cats en route to the school’s fifth title.
A year later, the group experienced something the Wildcats hadn’t in a while: defeat in the big game. In the years following the loss, many of them used the feeling as motivation, and even after getting back to the top in 2011, it was the experience on both sides of the spectrum that led to the confidence Northwestern could stay there in 2012.
“Because we’d been [to the championship] before multiple times, we’d experienced loss, we’d experienced success,” McFadden, now the head coach at Dartmouth, said. “We really knew what we needed to do as a team to win it all at the end.”
By the 2012 season, the senior class – led by Smith, McFadden, Russo, Vigmostad, Maria Tedeschi and goalie Brianne “Breezey” LoManto – had continued the precedent set by older classes that Northwestern was a championship team in the way they played, the way they practiced, the way they trained and the way they focused on their mindset.
“It was the expectation that if you came to play for Northwestern, winning was not a part of the culture as much as it was a way of life,” Kara Mupo, then a sophomore who is now the head coach at George Mason, said.
For Northwestern, winning started in practices and training. Everything was about process, said former midfielder Gabriella Flibotte (now Gabriella Walker), and that every single minute of practice was scheduled.
“We were mentally tougher than any team,” Flibotte said. “The way we trained and the level of focus required to make it through practice was insane.”
From 6 a.m. boxing training to sprinting the stadium stairs to additional lifting workouts, everything was about grit and toughness for the Wildcats.
There was no chance for the ‘Cats to get bogged down with pressure because they never had the chance to. Rather than reading rankings and worrying about reaching the Final Four, the team was focused on making themselves better, and the Wildcats were dialed in solely on the next play.
“[Kelly] would always say ‘win that next ground ball,’ ‘make that next save,’ or ‘win the draw,’ even in practice,” LoManto said. “I think having that mentality of short-term helped us stay focused.”
The concentration worked, as Northwestern opened the 2012 season with a 14-0 record, including 10 ranked wins. The ‘Cats, however, lost their unblemished record with an 8-7 loss to Florida. A one-point loss to another top five team wasn’t a huge deal at the time, until it happened again. Two weeks later, NU fell to Florida again in the American Lacrosse Conference championship, this time by the score of 14-7.
The second loss to the Gators served as a wake-up call.
“I think the first time it happens, you do have the ability mentally and emotionally to say, ‘We’ll chalk this up as a one-and-done thing,’” Mupo said. “When we lost again, it was like, ‘Well, there are really some underlying things that we need to take care of. We have a lot of work to do, and if we don’t do that, we won’t be playing Memorial Day weekend.’”
The adjustments worked, as Northwestern rolled through Notre Dame and Duke in the first two rounds before playing Maryland in the Final Four. The Terrapins had the lead early in the second half, but four straight Wildcat goals gave NU the advantage for good, in addition to some clutch defensive play down the stretch.
“Brianne LoManto made this save on the doorstep that I’ll never forget,” McFadden said. “I was like, ‘Oh, we have this. We’re not losing this weekend.’”
Thankfully for the Wildcats, they avoided Florida in the championship, and instead faced off against Syracuse. The Northwestern defense locked down the Orange, holding its opponent to 10 goals below its season average, while the ‘Cats’ offense broke a 6-6 tie in the final 10 minutes with game-winning goals from Tewaaraton finalist Taylor Thornton and second-leading goal-scorer Erin Fitzgerald.
As the final buzzer sounded, the Wildcats rushed the field, filled with relief, joy, excitement and gratitude. After a long season with adversity, intense training and relentless refusal for satisfaction, Northwestern claimed its spot at the pinnacle of the lacrosse world once again, winning its seventh national championship in eight years.
Now, the 2012 Northwestern women’s lacrosse team remembers that title run fondly. Most of the former players still follow the current team closely, visiting Lakeside Field for alumni games and cheering the team on from near and afar. The 2012 squad was unique in its own way, the capstone of one of the most unstoppable dynasties in college sports history. The alumni hold a special place in their heart for that team, as well as Kelly Amonte Hiller, who received nothing but praise from her former athletes and reciprocated just as much.
“Those guys were really special, they were competitors,” Amonte Hiller said. “They really bought in to what we were doing and they knew that, in order to be successful, they had to do that, that had to believe in what they were doing.”
As the 2023 iteration of Wildcat lacrosse continues its own quest for a championship, many similarities can be drawn between this year’s team and champions past. While Scane and the rest of the Wildcats are focused solely on what’s in front of them, one thing’s for certain approaching the Final Four this weekend: they’ll have a massive cheering fanbase behind them.