After a blowout loss to Maryland in the 2019 NCAA Final Four and a 2020 season cut short, senior midfielder Jill Girardi said Northwestern had a chip on its shoulder going into this spring: it wanted to claim the program’s eighth national championship.
The No. 2 Wildcats are on their way — and winning would make history. So far, NU has a solid foundation, earning the Big Ten regular season and tournament titles and remaining one of collegiate lacrosse’s undefeated squads.The squad will go up against No. 7 Duke on Saturday for a chance to return to the Final Four.
A key contributor to all of this success has been Girardi and her performance in draw controls.
This season, Girardi moved from midfield to defense, where she has won 64 draw controls in 10 games. Last week alone Girardi set a career high of 12 to help the team secure a spot in the Elite Eight.
“She’s just phenomenal down the stretch,” coach Kelly Amonte Hiller said. “She has been gaining in confidence and momentum. She’s incredibly athletic.”
Now in her 20th season with the Cats, Amonte Hiller has seen strong draw takers come through Evanston, including assistant coach Shelby Fredricks, who is the Cats’ all-time leading draw controller with 496.
Fredricks has worked closely with Girardi, who said her ability to win on the draw has grown immensely. She credited Fredricks with helping her improve her wrist strength — a crucial component to succeeding in the circle. Additionally, Girardi and Fredricks take the draw against each other in preparation for upcoming games.
Giradi gets help on the circle from graduate student attacker Lindsey McKone and senior attacker Lauren Gilbert, collecting 56 and 34 draw controls, respectively, outside of the circle. As Gilbert and McKone have combined for 82 goals and 24 assists, getting the ball in their hands has been a huge benefit to NU’s fast-paced offense.
In fact, Girardi prioritizes drawing to her teammates when she steps in the circle.
“(My teammates) are always pushing each other to go hard everyday and that pushes me everyday to work hard and try to make the team better,” Girardi said.
From the start of the season, Girardi has been a key defender for the team. The senior has created 14 caused turnovers and 11 ground balls this season, as well as 236 turnovers with her teammates. These efforts allow NU’s offense — the best in the nation with 20.50 goals per game — to go to work.
Junior attacker Izzy Scane, who recently set the program’s season single goal record at 89, praised Girardi’s performance, calling it a “huge help to the offense.” As an attacker, Scane is not allowed to go for a draw control unless the ball crosses over the 25-yard line, per NCAA regulations. Thus, Scane said Girardi’s ability to get the draw for the team has “set the tone” for the offense to score.
“Possession is everything,” Scane said. “When you have a girl who is dominating so much in the circle, it’s huge. Being able to have the ball down almost the whole game is a huge game changer in terms of what we can do on the offensive side.”
During the regular season, Girardi battled against some of the best draw takers in the nation, including Maryland redshirt senior defender Lizzie Colson, Penn State sophomore midfielder Olivia Dirks and Ohio State junior midfielder Chloë Johnson. And in each matchup, she proved hard to beat. She collected 33 draws in three games against Maryland, 6 in two games against Penn State and 6 against Ohio State.
“I step on (the line) and tell myself I’m going to win it and trust myself and my teammates,” Girardi said.
But her biggest challenge in the draw circle has yet to come.
Girardi and her teammates will face the Blue Devils and junior attacker Maddie Jenner at Lanny and Sharon Martin Stadium on Saturday. Jenner is one of the best draw control specialists in the country, earning 180 draws this season and a career high 15 against Virginia. Amonte Hiller, who coached Jenner on the U-19 USA team, said she is very familiar with her.
And come this weekend, Girardi will be, too. She said she is ready to face Jenner for the first time and compete, both inside and outside of the circle. Girardi’s performance against Jenner could impact the Cats’ return to the Final Four.
“We are going to be playing our game and knowing that we will dominate on the draw everytime we step up there,” Girardi said. “We are not gonna be afraid (of our opponents) and just focus on us.”
Email: [email protected]