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“We’re attacking it”: Inside Northwestern lacrosse’s mentality as the chase for a ninth title begins

It may be a new season, but the motivation remains the same.

@NULax | Twitter/X

What do you do after the to-do list has been fully checked off? Every task you needed to accomplish is done, every desire has been fulfilled and every goal has been attained. You’ve finally finished the job. What’s next?

If you’re Northwestern lacrosse, you simply start again. Despite bringing back all but 10 members of a group that romped through collegiate lacrosse en route to the program’s ninth national title, this year’s team is not resting on their laurels or expecting anyone to kiss the ring. Just ask them.

“We’re not defending anything,” Molly Laliberty, a sixth-year goalkeeper, said when asked how being defending champions factored into the mentality this season. “What happened last year was last year, and so we don’t say we’re defending anything. We say we’re attacking this year.”

Sammy White, a first-team All-American, also isn’t focusing on last year or the success the Wildcats attained. This team still has the mentality of being the hunters rather than the hunted.

“Everyone’s gunning to get us, but at the same time we’re gunning to get everyone,” White said. “We’re really trying to be like, ‘we’re still the underdogs.’ People still don’t want us to succeed.”

That mentality starts at the top. Head Coach Kelly Amonte Hiller spent more time talking about the rivalry with Syracuse than last year’s title. Even when asked about how the trophy returning to Evanston might change the team’s mentality, she gave it almost no focus. It was almost as though Hiller had never even considered the championship would affect the team’s motivation at all.

“Teams are going to give their best effort against us, we’ve talked about that as a group,” Hiller said Thursday. “The focus was on us last year, and it continues to be on us.”

Syracuse certainly gave its best effort Saturday afternoon. After going down 8-2, the fifth-ranked Orange began staging a ferocious comeback that cut the gap to just 15-14 with plenty of time to play in the final frame. From there, though, Northwestern slammed the door, scoring three of the game’s final four goals en route to an 18-15 victory. Laliberty, who struggled last year against the Orange, made several critical saves throughout Saturday’s game. That confidence and improvement are partially thanks to the continuity on the defensive side.

“It’s phenomenal to take the field again with these girls, most of whom were the same unit that were out on the field last year,” Laliberty said. “It’s really great. We work together on and off the field.”

White also noted that having the chemistry so high in the preseason would be a massive boost to the team.

“I think we’re able to mesh well together coming right out of the beginning of the season, which I think kind of took us a little bit of time last year,” White said. “I’m really excited that we have already worked with each other.”

That meshing process was evident in the way Northwestern won the 50-50 opportunities against Syracuse. The Wildcats forced 13 Syracuse turnovers, converted 14 of their 15 clear attempts, and dominated the draw circle, winning 24 compared to just 13 by the Orange. For Hiller, who’s fully aware of the time it takes to fully get a team playing together, the squad’s success in transition and playing team defense has to be a great sign.

“This is a new team this year, and we’re still forming who we are,” Amonte Hiller said. “We have a long way to go.”

Their destination, though, remains the same. 2023 serves as a useful blueprint but was by no means a culmination of a process. If anything, it was closer to the first step than the last.

“I think everything that we started to build last year, that’s just the first layer,” Laliberty said. “Just like building anything, you just continue to add on.”

That process, as always, starts with the offense. And man oh man, does this Northwestern squad have an offense.

“I think there is no one better than us,” Laliberty said. “I feel very, very lucky to get to see shots from Izzy (Scane), Erin (Coykendall), Dylan (Amonte), Maddie (Taylor), everyone...I’m excited to see them work together.”

If opening day is any indication, this offense will provide that excitement all season long. Scane, Coykendall, Amonte, and Taylor combined for 12 goals and nine assists in the victory over Syracuse. For White and the rest of the defense, it’s possible that guarding Syracuse — the fourth-best scoring team in the nation last season — was actually easier than guarding the offense in practice.

“I play against the best attackers every day,” White said. “We really are so lucky that we’re able to have that. Playing against some of the best attackers just makes me feel confident when I go into my matchups in the game.”

That confidence was evident in White’s play. The junior was credited with four draw controls, two caused turnovers, and a ground ball. She also scored a goal, the 11th of her career. It was a performance worthy of the expectations White set for herself in the offseason, after successful rehab from an injury suffered in fall ball.

“I would like to be in the top five of the Tewaaraton,” White said, “I do a lot all around the field, which I think really helps. I’m able to go on the transition, even score a couple of times. I want to be the best that I can be and I’m just pushing myself to be that.”

That doesn't mean the game was perfect. Indeed, Syracuse cutting a six-goal lead to just one (partially thanks to 12 Wildcat turnovers and 20 fouls, 10 of which resulted in cards) shows that this team still is not at the level it reached in the Final Four last year, but that’s to be expected.

“It’s going to be a process,” Amonte Hiller said. “It’s never perfect and it’s never like it is in the beginning. It’s not where it is in the end. We’re trying to figure out who we are, see where people fit in and go from there.”

Indeed, that’s part of the joy of lacrosse.

“There’s always so much learning, and that’s the fun part,” Amonte Hiller said. “That is really what we do throughout the season is the transformation, and hopefully we can have a lot of fun while we’re doing it.”

The first 60 minutes of learning were indeed fun, even if the score got a bit too close for comfort at the end. The team will get another learning opportunity this Friday on the road against preseason No. 7 Notre Dame. After that, there are 13 more games before the postseason begins. To hear Laliberty tell it, each of those games is going to be treated with the same gravitas and focus as the Syracuse game.

“This year’s a new year. We’re just going for it, we’re attacking it.”

And if that attack is as successful as it was in the first quarter against Syracuse, then the lacrosse world better watch out — there’s a new to-do list to complete.