Wildcats outlast Virginia en route to third title
PHILADELPHIA -- In this, the quick-hit, instant gratification era of sports, the term dynasty has taken a beating. Florida, a school that few knew had a basketball program five years ago, suddenly has been billed as basketball's second coming of UCLA.
So to call Northwestern, winners of three consecutive NCAA championships, a dynasty in women's lacrosse -- when Maryland really owns the honor with seven crowns in a row -- might be a little premature.
Dynasty in training? That'll do.
Once best known for their flip-flop gate at the White House in 2005, the Wildcats certainly now deserve a nod in the pantheon of great teams. They rolled their three-year record to 62-2 on Sunday night with a gut-check 15-13 win over Virginia for their third national championship. Before the NCAA could officially hand over its hardware, the Northwestern players grabbed it, snatching their third national championship trophy into their celebratory scrum.
"Every one is different," coach Kelly Amonte Hiller said of her three-peat.
Amonte Hiller knows about the dynasty thing.
She was at Maryland when the Terrapins won two of those seven crowns in the 1990s, earned player of the year honors twice and played her way onto the list of all-time greatest women lacrosse players.
But asking Amonte Hiller to compare herself to her Maryland coach, Cindy Timchal, is like asking Henry Bibby to compare himself to John Wooden. She can't do it.
The statistics can.
Amonte Hiller has single-handedly given birth to Northwestern lacrosse, bringing the program into existence six years ago. More, she has elevated it to heights no team that didn't hug the Atlantic Coast had previously done, tossing the traditional Maryland-Long Island lacrosse borders out the window.
"I can't compare myself to Cindy, she's one of the greatest ever," Amonte Hiller said. "But we've definitely got something special here. We have a nice niche in the Chicago area. Ours is different than Maryland, but I'm excited with what we've established at Northwestern thus far."
The production this year began with something Northwestern is only vaguely familiar with -- a loss. North Carolina ended the Cats' 10-game win streak with an overtime win in the season opener.
No one said it, but the message from that loss was understood: There was no room for complacency or the presumption that by just showing up, Northwestern could win.
"That game was the turning point," senior Kristen Kjellman said. "After that game, we had to realize that we had to take it game by game, that we had to work hard in practice every day. That was really big for us."
The confidence, the calm that Northwestern then built over the next 20 games paid huge dividends against Virginia. In the semifinals on Friday, the Cavaliers stunned Duke with a 10-goal comeback. Afterward, coach Julie Myers quipped her team could ill afford to spot Northwestern nine goals.
How about five?
Down 12-7 four minutes into the second half, Virginia scored four unanswered goals and suddenly what was presumed to be Northwestern's date with destiny started to look an awful lot like Duke's date with disaster.
"If anything, that game on Friday night gave us confidence," said Cavalier senior Jess Wasilewski. "It let us know anything is possible."
Northwestern, though, isn't Duke. The Blue Devils struggled all year on defense and clearly never mastered the art of holding the ball in a game without a shot clock.
That in and of itself was a win for Virginia. The Wildcats are a run-and-gun team, the kind that scores goals easily and often. They led the nation in scoring this year, averaging more than 16 goals per game.
"I wanted to take the air out of the ball," Amonte Hiller said. "They were scoring at will, so I wanted to try and slow things down."
The game plan didn't sit well with the NCAA record and Virginia-heavy crowd of 6,075 who suddenly turned into displaced Eagles fans at Penn's Franklin Field, booing the four-corners game. The idea of booing girls named Katelyn (and Caitlyn and Caitlin) in skirts seemed especially mean-spirited at first.
But then, this was Philadelphia and Santa Claus got a dose back when, so why not pony-tailed coeds?
Nor did the stall game go down easily for sophomore Hilary Bowen, a player who basically thinks one thing when the ball is in her stick -- go forward, young woman, and score. She notched five in the title game, winning MVP honors.
"That was what we had to do at that point," Bowen said with a laugh. "Whatever it takes to win a national championship."
The tactical choice also looked disastrous when, up just 14-13, Hannah Nielsen's shot from the side was stuffed by Virginia goalie Kendall McBrearty with 5:27 to play.
But Northwestern goaltender Morgan Lathrop, the Maytag repairman of women's lacrosse because she gets so little work, came up with the biggest save of her two-year career, getting her stick on a Brittany Kalkstein high laser directly in front of the goal.
"That save was huge," Amonte Hiller said.
A minute later, freshman Katrina Dowd scored on a perfect feed from Nielsen to give Northwestern the two-point cushion, and after Meredith Frank won the draw with 2:25 to go, the game was all but in the books.
"I had a player on me and Hannah was to my left," Dowd said of her game icer. "When I passed it to her, the girl just focused on her and Hannah made a great pass."
The question now, insanely enough, is does Northwestern have the stuff for four? The Wildcats lose a lot, most of it summed up in one player. Kjellman, the defending player of the year, leaves with her name littered across the Northwestern annals and etched in the NCAA record book as well, the all-time leading scorer in tournament games.
She notched but one goal and one assist against Virginia, but of the 17 vital draws the Wildcats won, Kjellman took 15 of them. Many she simply flipped to herself.
Like her coach, Kjellman wasn't willing to compare herself to the all-time greats, shyly thanking the questioner who even deigned to put her name on a list of other top players.
One of them, however, spoke for Kjellman.
"She kicks my ass in practice ever day," Amonte Hiller said.
Amonte Hiller was right when she said that this senior class, the one with three championship rings, will define Northwestern lacrosse. But the truth is, the book is still being written. After Kjellman, the team's next three top scorers are sophomores. Ditto the goaltender. The team's top defender, Christy Finch, is a junior.
And Dowd, a rookie, just put up the first hat trick of her collegiate career.
In the national championship game.
"Compare them to Maryland?" Myers said. "They're very similar in that their true force is their attack. They hope to outscore every team."
And 20 out of 21 times this year, 62 out of 64 in the last three, the Wildcats did just that.
Anyone thinking dynasty?
Dana O'Neil is a reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.