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Lacrosse post-mortem 2023: In terms of perfection, this team is as close as it gets

What more could you ask for?

When Northwestern won the national title, it should not have been a surprise.

From day one of the season to the very last day, the Wildcats were never to be taken lightly. They were always going to be good, as a No. 5 ranking by USA Lacrosse predicted, it was just a matter of how good. As for the answer: Northwestern gave a new meaning to dominance. It was almost ruthless.

The entire season, the connectivity between the team was tangible.

The way the ‘Cats opened the season at Syracuse established that this year was going to be different. They were down 6-2 at the half but clawed their way back to tie the game. Northwestern may have lost by one to a team that would be No. 1 for five straight weeks, but that grittiness and fighting ability said something. Five goals from Izzy Scane in her return after not playing for a season and five from Madison Taylor, who was flying under the radar in her first-ever collegiate game, also said something.

With the No. 1 offense in the country, the numbers speak for themselves. Only once in 22 games did Northwestern not reach double-digit goals. That statistic is unsurprising considering four players surpassed 50 goals this season. Scane, who tallied 10 goals against Notre Dame in just her second game of the season and since May 2021, came back even better somehow. The Tewaaraton Finalist scored a program-breaking 99 goals —just three shy of the NCAA record despite missing two games. Hailey Rhatigan, who didn’t play five games, had 62 goals. Erin Coykendall, whose brilliant lacrosse IQ drove the playmaking, had 58 goals and 50 assists. Taylor, a first-year who had eight Big Ten Freshman of the Week Honors, scored 53, including four in the national title game. That much talent on an attack is almost unfair, and it’s why Northwestern was able to go up by ten goals and run the clock even against the No. 1 defense in Denver and an incredibly respectable Boston College team.

The defense took time to develop with star defender Sammy White being a midfielder until the third game of the season against BC. But as seen in the championship, the unit was incredibly strong and could continually halt the best teams in the nation. White and Kendall Halpern, the two anchors, finished with 31 and 27 caused turnovers, respectively. The defense would all of their opponents in the NCAA tournament to seven or fewer goals.

Ahead of the season, goalkeeping and the draw were seen as two vulnerable aspects. Molly Laliberty, the graduate transfer from Tufts, raised questions about how a Division III goalie could adapt to Division I. Quite honestly, she may have taken those underestimations personally, because she seemed D1 ready from the start. In close games against Boston College, Maryland and Michigan, she put up show-stopping, impossible saves. And of course, this team couldn’t have made it so far without her frequent on-field celebrations.

Northwestern grew accustomed to earning the draw with Jill Girardi’s 183 draw controls, which led the country in 2022. Samantha Smith stepped into that role, garnering 121 draw controls and putting Taylor and White in positions to also gather over 50 each.

A roster this deep with this much talent was always going to have the makings of a playoff squad, but perhaps what differentiated the ‘Cats from a potential contender to an actual winner was their comeback gene. Or, a better way to put it, how badly they wanted it.

It could be a combination of the Final Four loss to North Carolina —that doesn’t need to be talked about anymore— and coming up short to Syracuse in the ‘Cats’ first game back, but they thrived in pressure-packed moments. During the 21-game winning streak, NU was down by four at half and one in the fourth quarter against BC in the regular season, only up by one to Maryland at half in the Big Ten Championship and trailing by one in the fourth quarter to Michigan in the second round of the playoffs. Yet, Northwestern seemed unfazed and displayed its fighting streak. The Wildcats went on to beat BC and Michigan by one, and Maryland by five.

This season was a long-time coming, finally delivering Kelly Amonte Hiller’s eighth championship and first since 2012, but it was also a long-time coming that a storied program found itself with a team as near perfect as this one. There was magic in watching Scane, who will be remembered as one of the best scorers in lacrosse history, shoot from impossible angles. It was magical to watch Coykendell engineer plays, Rhatigan’s sidearm sling-shots, Taylor and White never run out of energy and Laliberty’s momentous saves. With two Tewaaraton Finalists and eight players with All-American honors behind a legendary coach, how could this season have been anything other than magical? How could it have ended any other way?

The best part is that Northwestern lacrosse may be raising the trophy again very soon.