Varnes: Northwestern has been a national title contender all of 2021 — so why the skepticism?


Lacrosse


Northwestern kicked off its season in a near-empty Ryan Fieldhouse, capturing a 23-7 victory against Ohio State on Valentine’s Day. Fast forward three months, and much has changed: non-conference foes are now opponents, 80 degree temperatures are a constant in Evanston and fans are allowed in the stands at Lanny and Sharon Martin Stadium.

But one aspect of the season has stayed the same: the Wildcats’ undefeated record.

NU has had little trouble dispatching opponents. The Cats lead the country in scoring margin, winning their matchups by an average of 10.4 points. They also rank first in the country in scoring offense, draw controls per game and points per game.

One glance at the stat sheet is enough to prove this team’s talent. Yet, NU entered the NCAA Selection Show nervous.

Senior attacker Lauren Gilbert said the Cats were concerned about conference-only play affecting its write out and leading to a lower seed. Ultimately, NU ended up happy with its No. 2 seed and home field advantage for the opening two rounds.

“We knew that was what we deserved given our record, but we weren’t sure how things were going to shake out,” Gilbert said.

Forget RPI and forget conference-only play. It is beyond time to let go of any skepticism about the Cats’ 2021 season. This is not the team who lost in a blowout in the 2019 Final Four. This is not the team who kicked off 2020 4-3.

The 2021 NU team is entirely different.

Despite their undefeated season and phenomenal play, the Cats have faced doubt at the national level throughout 2021 given their Big Ten-only schedule.

NU kicked off the season ranked fifth in the IWLCA coaches’ poll behind North Carolina, Notre Dame, Syracuse and Loyola Maryland. While No. 5 certainly isn’t a bad ranking, it isn’t quite indicative of a team that would qualify for the NCAA Final Four undefeated. It took until April 12 — nearly two months into its season — for the Cats to reach No. 2 nationally.
Although it may have initially been difficult to compare NU to other teams playing non-conference opponents, that time has long passed. The Cats routed all of their Big Ten opponents, many of whom were ranked nationally at one point or another.

Two Big Ten teams — Maryland and Rutgers — eventually made it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament as well. Now, NU has thoroughly defeated two non-conference opponents by double-digit margins in Denver and No. 7 Duke.

While the Cats’ quest for the NCAA title fell short in 2019, many veteran players have only improved since then, and are poised to lead the team past the semifinal.

Junior attacker Izzy Scane has always been an offensive threat, scoring five goals in the team’s 2019 semifinal loss and putting up eight goals against the Tar Heels in 2020. She’s gotten even better in 2021, averaging a nation-leading 6.27 goals per game and is tied for the most goals in the country in 2021 with 94.

Scane is a star both in the program and on the national level. However, what may be most remarkable about this team is the depth that surrounds her.

The Cats have plenty of offensive firepower this year, led by veterans of the 2019 Final Four. Gilbert has scored 65 goals in 2021, good for seventh nationally in goals per game. Graduate student attacker Lindsey McKone has anchored NU’s offense for years, notching 25 goals in 2021.

The Cats’ newcomers are ready to support the team on the main stage in the 2021 Final Four as well. Sophomore attacker Erin Coykendall ranks tenth in the nation in assists. Graduate student attacker Sammy Mueller, a transfer from Virginia, has played a key role for the Cats since she arrived in Evanston, scoring 37 in 2021.

NU’s depth on the draw has played an important role as well. Gilbert, McKone and senior midfielder Jill Girardi have all recorded 60 or more draws in 2021. Many teams rely on one main draw specialist, including Syracuse, who the Cats will face in the Final Four.

NU’s playing and coaching staff is well aware of the skepticism — and they have had enough. Coykendall said there was a lot of talk about the Big Ten’s scheduling and Coach Kelly Amonte Hiller called it “doubt.” Gilbert said the Big Ten as a whole wasn’t getting “as much credit as it deserves.” Whatever it is, it’s time for the skeptics to let go.

This NU team is not just good — they are uniquely phenomenal. And they are beyond ready to take on the Final Four.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @charvarnes11

Related Stories: 
Lacrosse: No. 2 Northwestern secures spot in Final Four with victory over No. 7 Duke
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